Learjet layoffs deliver a blow to Wichita’s hopes for economic recovery

Employees at Bombardier Learjet work on a Model 85 fuselage at the Wichita plant in 2012.
Employees at Bombardier Learjet work on a Model 85 fuselage at the Wichita plant in 2012. File photo

The layoffs announced last week by Bombardier Learjet made it feel a lot like 2009 again, or 2010 or 2011 or 2012 or 2013.

There have been a lot of aircraft layoffs, product line shutdowns and factory closings in the last six years. With Boeing finally gone and Hawker Beechcraft merged into Cessna, many Wichitans thought that – finally – such turmoil and downsizing was behind us, that a small ray of sunshine for the city’s biggest industry could be seen in the distance.

And then this.

Bombardier officials announced Thursday that the company would halt production of the Learjet 85 because of weak demand and lay off 620 workers in Wichita. They didn’t say when the program would be restarted.

Other Learjet models and the company’s testing facilities are unaffected. That will leave the facility on the west side of Mid-Continent Airport with 1,850 employees.

Thursday’s news could be seen as more of the same. In 2008, Wichita peaked at 42,100 aircraft workers. As of a month ago, Wichita had 26,400 aircraft workers, down nearly 40 percent.

And despite hiring at some suppliers, there’s no sign that aviation employment will be rebounding soon.

Bob Brewer, director of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, said many of those laid off in the past retired, moved or found work outside the industry. But many others would love to go back to work.

“We keep holding out hope,” Brewer said. “We see some positive signs and then something like this happens.”

The layoffs will have some economic impact, said Jeremy Hill, director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University.

There are the straight numbers: 620 jobs times nearly $50,000 in wages, plus the lost spending with local subcontractors and suppliers, plus the spending spillover.

The job market for aircraft workers is pretty bad, generally, but there is demand for the engineers and composites workers, he said. A recent search of the state’s Kansasworks job listings showed 91 aircraft- or aviation-related job openings in the Wichita area.

The Bombardier layoffs are a pinprick in a $32 billion area economy, but they could take a psychological toll.

“The U.S. economy is going strong,” Hill said. “The U.S. consumer is feeling confident and strong. Everything should be feeling fairly strong.

“However, Wichita consumers are not as optimistic. This could cause them to be a bit tighter with their purchases, slow some car sales and furniture sales.”

Some good news

But some doubted whether Wichita’s psyche would be wounded much by the latest round of bad news.

Wichita always lags the national cycle, up and down. The U.S. economy is just beginning to really catch fire, so it’s no surprise that Wichita remains in the doldrums.

And, besides, said a number of Wichitans last week, Thursday’s layoffs seem more about Bombardier’s cash crunch and strategic miscalculations than about Wichita’s place in the aircraft world.

Sheryl Wohlford owns Automation Plus, a company that makes machines that spray numbers on parts, especially aircraft parts. She’s hiring these days.

“Honestly, it made me very sad that they’re going to put 620 people out of work,” she said. “Probably there will be some pessimism, but I was glad to see through social media that when people posted that they had been laid off there were immediate replies of ‘You need to apply to my company.’ And these are companies that hire at a high level.”

The local aircraft industry has already crashed, and the city is still alive, said Nate Regier, founder of Next Element Consulting, a leadership development and communication training firm.

When you lose 15,000 jobs, losing another 620 isn’t that big of a deal, he said. Overall, the aircraft industry is a smaller and less important piece of Wichita’s economy and self-image than it was in decades past.

Plus, he said, Wichita has been growing despite the fact that its aircraft industry has been in continuous turmoil for six years.

Wichita overall has 291,400 jobs, up about 12,000 jobs or 4 percent growth since mid-2011. That pace of growth lags the nation and the state, but it is progress. It also means that the city is actually diversifying its job base.

“I think people are less concerned about it than they used to be,” Regier said. “When we were more dependent on the industry, when we were truly the Air Capital, it would have felt more serious, maybe.

“But people have made adjustments.”

Reach Dan Voorhis at 316-268-6577 or Follow him on Twitter: @danvoorhis.

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