Boeing is going, Hawker Beechcraft is going through bankruptcy, and Kansas lost a shocking 21.7 percent of its aerospace employment between 2007 and 2011. But Wichita saw aircraft manufacturing grow by 8.3 percent, or 2,400 jobs, over the past year, and it remains an unparalleled place to engineer and manufacture aircraft. Rather than fret about recent setbacks, leaders must step up their selling of the Air Capital of the World and its assets to industry, and especially to companies that supply aircraft parts.
At a recent meeting at Spirit AeroSystems, the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors heard a compelling case for why Wichita and Kansas not only should expect to maintain their stature in aerospace but build on it. The meeting included presentations from two key players in the region’s future competitiveness, John Tomblin of Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research and Tony Kinkel of the Wichita Area Technical College and National Center for Aviation Training.
Their world-class facilities stand ready to provide the research and development assistance and workforce training (and retraining) that industry will demand as aerospace rebounds and the global market beckons.
Tomblin’s presentation made the point that even as Wichita has shed aircraft jobs, its strength in aerospace engineering has continued to grow. The large-scale work that NIAR will be able to do at the transformed Kansas Coliseum complex will further serve industry, he said, increasingly including parts suppliers. Kinkel noted that because of its partnership with NIAR, NCAT combines research and training “lab to the line” faster than anyone else in the world.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Hill, director of Wichita State University’s Center for Economic and Business Research, provided some encouraging context for Kansas’ competitiveness. Among the 14 states with aerospace jobs, Kansas ranks first for low cost of living; fourth best for costs of labor, energy and construction; fifth for ease of doing business; sixth for tax climate; and seventh for education.
“Businesses should be lined up to want to come here,” Hill said.
First, though, they must hear about the low costs, good quality of life and highly skilled workforce available in Kansas, which has done a poor job of promoting itself to businesses and site selectors.
For all that Wichita and Kansas have to offer, keeping and attracting aircraft companies will require the use of economic incentives. Kansans don’t have to like them, but they must be amply funded and available. That will be a challenge, especially as the state’s revenues shrink in the wake of the income-tax cuts. Because Wichita also needs more sites ready for industrial and warehouse use by large employers, officials will need to assist as they can – as the Wichita City Council did in August, by approving tax breaks developers can seek for such buildings.
As Gov. Sam Brownback said at the meeting, “We’ve got some real opportunities here.”
Wichita’s title of Air Capital of the World need not be at risk – and it won’t be if state and local leaders use every opportunity to promote and advance Wichita as the best place in the world to design and build aerospace products and parts.