THE LIFEBLOOD OF THE ECONOMY
If Wichita's economy is a heart, its workers are the lifeblood. And the arteries that transport that lifeblood represent the pipeline.
Keeping that pipeline full of talented workers is crucial to our businesses, especially with increasing demand for higher skilled workers and an extremely low unemployment rate shaping a market full of job openings.
Spirit AeroSystems announced early this year it would be growing by about 1,000 jobs, not including its normal hiring to offset retirement and turnover. With that many jobs waiting to be filled, the pipeline has never been more important — for Spirit, its suppliers and the entire Wichita economy.
If we can't provide the workers our industries demand — or attract them from other markets — they may be forced to look elsewhere.
EVOLVING WITH THE MARKETPLACE
If the pipeline is the artery feeding the economy, the veins represent recruitment efforts, says Sheree Utash, president of Wichita State University's Campus of Applied Sciences and Technology, or WSU Tech, and vice president of workforce development.
Traditionally, the pipeline has led workers to the industries of their choosing through technical training, internships and apprenticeships. But demand for qualified workers has scaled up, and our supply of those workers hasn't kept up.
WSU Tech, formerly Wichita Area Technical College, has long been the primary vein in Wichita, working directly with industries to provide the skilled laborers needed to meet production and demand.
"That pipeline can expand and decrease, expand and decrease, and our job is to be ready to turn the water faucet on and turn it on full blast if we need to, take it down a little bit when we need to and turn it off, based on what the needs are," Utash says. "We work really close with industry, and really all types of industry. [WSU Tech] is a microcosm of the community, so as the community's business and industry needs go, so does this institution."
The difference between the skills and workers an industry needs and the number of workers available to hire is called the skills gap, or talent gap. Coleen Tabor, human resources and talent director for Spirit AeroSystems, says this gap is being felt across manufacturing.
"For us, the skills gap is the level of mechanical experience and skill people have when they enter the workforce," she says. "Today, that is a lower level than we’ve experienced in the past. People used to come to us with three to five years of experience. Today, we are taking people with little to no experience and training them in."
Jason Cox, president of Cox Machine, which provides machined assembly parts to the aerospace market, says he's feeling the skills gap, as well.
"We need more qualified workers," he says. "All of the people who have five to 10 years of experience in the industry, in whatever position you want, are not available. They’ve already been absorbed into the workforce."
WSU Tech has the faucet wide open to try to fill the gap, but it's no longer the case that open jobs attract talent, especially in a field that has been marred with a negative perception while four-year degrees seem ever-more attainable through student loans.
Cox says manufacturing has been falsely labeled with the three Ds: dark, dirty and dangerous. But as you look across his machining plant, it's none of those things. Bright day-light bulbs light up a facility glistening with tech — robotic arms, metal parts moving through machines and people handling finished parts ready for assembly.
"We’re in a well-lit, climate-controlled, high-tech environment," Cox says. "It doesn’t take much to change a perception. When you bring them in and they see what we’re doing, that’s all it takes for them to realize what it’s really like in this industry."
While that perception is fairly easy to change at an individual level, it's harder at a societal level. This has forced manufacturers to get creative in their hiring, especially with exacerbating factors of low unemployment and the retirement of one of the largest generations in American history.
WIDENING THE PIPELINE
With all of these issues compounding, Wichita's pipeline has to widen, reaching further back in the educational pathway and reaching further out in geography.
"In grade school and middle school, it’s really about generating interest in the field and in manufacturing," Tabor says. "Getting kids excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) activities."
Cox says that could be as simple as showing an aerospace exhibit at Exploration Place or going into schools to share what area manufacturing really looks like today.
Spirit gets more direct with high schoolers, inviting students to visit Spirit facilities and work side-by-side with workers for an internship. This is also where WSU Tech comes into play, offering quick licensing to expedite entry into lucrative jobs — often without student loans.
Geographically, the pipeline is expanding to pull in qualified workers from other cities outside the region.
"Hiring 1,000 people can’t help but put some pressure on the market," he says. "I think [Spirit] understands that taking people from their suppliers doesn’t help the city as a whole."
Tabor says they are reaching out across the I-35 corridor and into other Midwestern communities to attract workers — even for entry-level jobs.
"We did have good success with people coming in [from Dallas] with the skills that we need and an interest in moving to Wichita," Tabor says.
One challenge in recruiting in these larger markets is finding the jobs needed to support a two-income family. Spirit may be the perfect job for one person, but we also need to support economic diversity to provide opportunities for their spouse.
PERCEPTION & THE PIPELINE
We've all heard over and over again that perception attracts a workforce, which attracts businesses, which provide jobs. But the perception challenge doesn't stop there — it has to work to attract and keep people in the city to continue to fill those jobs.
If we're actively working to recruit talent from cities like Dallas, Kansas City and Oklahoma City, Wichita has to project a vibrant image — not just in the types of jobs we're offering, but also in the type of life we can provide.
We also need to focus on keeping talent here. If we're struggling to fill the skills gap, it doesn't help if our young people can't wait to get out of the city.
"When I was growing up, Wichita was not a cool place to live," Cox says. He moved away to study, but returned in 2000. "Over the past 18 years, there's been a lot of change."
Tabor says Spirit has had some luck in attracting workers from larger markets like Dallas and Kansas City. But it begs the question: What do we have that those cities don't?
We have a great opportunity to provide this pipeline and provide that skilled workforce, but we have to be very intentional to meet that need — and it's a huge need. We could be super winners, or we could be super losers.Sheree Utash
Cox says Wichita is helped by a trend of young professionals wanting to move back into mid-sized cities like Des Moines, Raleigh or Wichita. But that doesn't mean we can rest easy.
"There are a lot of things we could be doing with the city faster or better," Cox says. "Hopefully we’ll always feel that way — that we’ve always got improvements to make and things we could do a little better."
Having more jobs than workers isn't the worst problem to have, but it is still a problem. It also represents a major opportunity that Wichita has to seize.
"We have a great opportunity to provide this pipeline and provide that skilled workforce, but we have to be very intentional to meet that need — and it’s a huge need," Utash says. "We could be super winners, or we can be super losers."
Tabor and Cox say there are plenty of opportunities if you're looking for work in the aerospace industry. If you're looking to deepen your skill set to find a job in the industry, WSU Tech is the place to start.
"There are good jobs available today, and there are good jobs available in the future," Tabor says. "We have to keep the now in perspective and think about the long-term, and we’re working to balance both of those."