The sleek steel, glass and concrete boxes rising alongside North Webb Road — the new National Center for Aviation Training — suggest a gleaming future for Wichita and its aircraft workers.
A ribbon-cutting on the $52 million, 230,000-square-foot complex will be 3 p.m. Wednesday. Already students are inside learning how to build and maintain airplanes.
But this year has posed some uncomfortable questions for Wichita about its aviation work force.
If Wichita's work force is the best in the world, as many enthusiastic promoters contend, how can Hawker Beechcraft threaten to move work to another state? Can other places easily create a cheaper work force from scratch?
Never miss a local story.
The state of North Carolina did it for a Spirit AeroSystems plant that opened this year. Independence did it for Cessna Aircraft more than a decade ago. Now, Louisiana apparently is prepared to try the same thing with Hawker Beechcraft.
And, most importantly for Wichita, does a three-generation-long manufacturing culture and one of the deepest pools of engineering talent in the world give this city an edge in hanging on to the industry?
The answer, say experts, is the work force is worth quite a lot, but it can be replaced.
"Could it be duplicated somewhere else? Sure, if a whole lot of money is spent," said Doug Stanley, chairman of the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.
Wichita clearly is vulnerable.
Other states are willing to spend a lot to get an aircraft plant or company. And, in the downturn, all aircraft companies are feeling tremendous cost pressures. Hawker Beechcraft needs to cut costs in part to repay more than $2 billion in debt.
And longer term, all Wichita aviation companies are girding for competition against companies with lower wage rates either because the small business jets are being built by nonunion labor or in other countries.
The solution Wichita companies have come up with is two-fold: lay off, outsource and automate lower-skill jobs, and push for a new training center.
NCAT makes the remaining work force more valuable, say industry and community leaders, by increasing the skills of those doing higher level jobs. It also speeds up the supply of new workers during good times.
For Jeff Turner, CEO of Spirit AeroSystems, NCAT is critical for Wichita to hang on to its aircraft companies.
"There is a lot of pressure to go somewhere else," Turner said. "Having a skilled work force in place is so important.... This is a long-term growth industry. I'm very confident that we will be back in growth mode before too long."
How highly skilled?
The value of a company's workers depends entirely on whether they are worth more than they cost.
The tipping point varies from job to job, and from worker to worker. Paying $25 an hour to machine parts might be too much, which is why many of those jobs have been outsourced. But paying $40 an hour to an engineer to design a wing might be fine.
Aircraft companies have been outsourcing lower-value jobs for more than a decade. But what constitutes "lower value" changes constantly — and almost any worker can be replaced given enough time and money.
"Experience is incredibly important in this business; it's tough to replicate," said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group. "But if another state were to offer a massive subsidy, they might make it good."
Still, many argue that there is something special about the Wichita work force.
A history of aircraft work going back to the 1920s and 1930s has produced a widespread cultural expectation that work needs to meet a certain level of precision, say experts.
It also creates something called "tribal knowledge," which is the hands-on detailed understanding gained from the experience of doing a task. It's not something clearly recorded, so it has to be passed along from person to person, rather than through a company training manual.
"Having worked with some companies in the industry, I know the concept is alive and well," said Sue Abdinnour, a business professor at Wichita State University. "There's a lot of 'We've always done it that way,' and 'We know how to do it and there's no reason to document it.' "
And workers will often say how high the skill level is.
"We have the best skills you find anywhere in this country," Spirit worker Bruce Richardson said.
But even Richardson said that it might not take more than a few weeks for a mechanically inclined worker to learn how to do his job. The job is somewhat technically difficult, he said, but it also is repetitive work that involves standing all day.
But, really, how tough is it to find and build an aircraft work force in a new place?
Spirit AeroSystems opened a plant to build the center fuselage of the Airbus A350 XWB in part in Kinston, N.C., a town of about 24,000 people in eastern North Carolina.
The company ships the fuselages to Europe and picked a location in the Southeast for its proximity to coastal ports. Spirit received about $125 million in incentives, along with a building that it leases for a nominal fee.
The worker training, through a program with nearby Lenoir Community College, was critical.
"These are very highly technical jobs that take a fair amount of skill, so we've got to have the work force training in place," Spirit spokeswoman Debbie Gann told a Kinston newspaper.
The prospective work force: skilled and semi-skilled former textile workers, and former military employees from five nearby bases.
"Those skills are transferable, and these are folks that are trainable," said Mark Pope, director of economic development for Lenoir County.
The Spirit plant opened in July with about 200 workers, Pope said. Over the next five years, it is expected to employ more than 1,000.
"There's lots of hands-on-type people that are floating in this area," Pope said. And North Carolina is a nonunion state. "I can't say that did not play a part of it, too."
That has important implications for any move to Louisiana.
Business Facilities magazine ranked Louisiana's work force training effort the nation's best this year. The magazine cited the state's two-year-old FastStart program, which provides training tailored to the needs of a company at no cost.
Bob Drechsler, a Wichita-based aircraft consultant, estimated it would take perhaps two years to train a work force elsewhere to do what workers in Wichita now do.
The company would seed the new work force with Wichita transplants. Many of the engineers are used to moving.
"The key is what about the timing," Drechsler said. "It's not something you can do on short notice."
Turner said the North Carolina Spirit workers are fine, he said. But the Wichita work force is special.
"There is a depth and breadth that comes from 75 years worth of learning," he said. "We don't anticipate there will be the same depth and breadth there, but for what they've been trained for they will be really good."
The community is placing a $52 million bet that NCAT will help it hang on to its aircraft industry.
It really doesn't have much choice, say community leaders. Doing it the old way won't work in the future. The industry needs more, and more consistently skilled, workers. It needs to be able to adapt quickly to new technologies.
The industry also doesn't want to run into a labor shortage during boom times — especially given the retirement of the baby boomers. The college has a capacity to train 1,500 people at a time.
NCAT is also intended as a beacon for those around the country or world who want aircraft skills.
"It is frankly sending a message to the whole aerospace industry... that this community supports the aviation industry," said Stanley, the economic development coalition chairman.
NCAT will do wonders for the industry, allowing it to compete better, said Pete Gustaf, a venture capitalist who for a decade led the effort to improve work force training, eventually heading WATC until he resigned earlier this year.
Fears about the industry leaving are overblown, Gustaf said. Yes, outsourcing of lower-skill work will continue and cost pressures will remain, but Hawker's threatened move is more about Hawker's financial problems than the cost and quality of Wichita's labor force.
"We're talking about an isolated thing with Hawker," Gustaf said. "Learjet is staying; Cessna has a huge footprint. The high-tech stuff is here. So it behooves us to understand: if we got these people here, how do we keep them?"