As if the 11,000 aviation jobs lost since 2008 weren’t enough, Wichita and its economy took another hit Thursday when Spirit AeroSystems laid off about 360 employees at its Wichita and Oklahoma sites.
It was a disappointing development for a hometown company that has shown uncommon resilience during the downturn and even bounced back from a tornado, and for a community and workforce more than ready for a strong recovery.
The large layoff was a first for the 8-year-old company, a former Boeing Co. commercial site whose 11,000 workers make it the largest private employer not only in Wichita but in Kansas. When Wichita’s other aviation manufacturers were shedding jobs in recent years, Spirit used shortened workweeks and other means to avoid doing so.
And the timing of the layoffs surprised some, while fueling rumors of a looming bid for the company by GKN Aerospace. Although Spirit saw significant financial turbulence last year related to its programs under development, the layoffs followed reports that it is stepping up production on 737 and 787 programs and has a backlog of work valued at about $36 billion. They also came a day before Spirit’s proud rollout of the first forward fuselage to be shipped to Boeing for the Air Force’s new fleet of KC-46 refueling tankers.
It was of further concern that 200 of the Spirit layoffs were of engineers and professional and technical workers, including many seasoned employees. Such job losses do not serve Wichita’s durability as a hub for aviation engineering, research and development.
The Spirit layoffs – which a company statement said were part of an “ongoing, rigorous process to align our workforce with the needs of our customers and programs, and drive improved company performance” – will be followed by the usual, unfortunately:
More area families facing an uncertain future and perhaps turning to social services for help, underscoring the importance of a successful United Way of the Plains campaign this fall.
More worries about the sustainability of the Wichita economy’s aviation-manufacturing focus, which can seem both a blessing and a curse.
More pressure on the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition to deliver new businesses and jobs, and on elected officials to get a more competitive strategy and a more generous funding stream to aid GWEDC in the hunt.
And, unfortunately, more warnings that Wichita is going the way of bankrupt Detroit.
Though both cities have specialized in manufacturing, Wichita lacks Detroit’s debt load, shrinking population and history of municipal mismanagement and political corruption. And thank goodness for that.
But Spirit’s layoffs are a reminder that many of the forces dragging down the local economy are not a matter of local or even state or federal control. Though Wichita and state leaders should do what they can, the global marketplace for aerospace is in charge.