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Wichita Has Talked For Years About Diversifying Its Economy. What Would That Look Like?

Hugo Phan
KMUW/File photo
Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita

Wichita is known as the Air Capital of the World — birthplace of Beechcraft and Cessna, and home to Spirit AeroSystems, Textron Aviation and dozens of aviation supply companies.

But continuing troubles with Boeing’s 737 MAX and a downturn in air travel due to the pandemic have led to massive layoffs across the industry, once again raising the question: Is Wichita too reliant on aviation?

Megan Stringer recently looked into that question for The Wichita Eagle and Kansas.com. She joined the paper earlier this year as an employment reporter through the Report for America program.

Credit Courtesy
Megan Stringer is a reporter for the Wichita Eagle. She joined the paper this year through the Report for America program.

Stringer talked with Tom Shine and The Range about what diversification means, what progress Wichita has made and the value of a highly skilled workforce, even during a downturn.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Tom Shine: Can you start … by explaining what a diversified economy is and, perhaps more importantly, what it's not?

Megan Stringer: So, to diversify an economy generally it means a few different things. It means that you can expand the types of businesses that are in a city and an economy. It can also mean that you expand what products … businesses create, who their customers are, where they export to, where they sell to. It could also mean just an existing company expanding within a city and economy. So there's a number of different things that it means.

To diversify the economy generally means to create just a more varied structure so that there's more range of economic activities within your regional economy.

I think a lot of people assume (diversification) means whole new industries, right? … But you're telling me that it's really not, is it?

That is an oversimplification of what diversification looks like. To bring in something totally new wouldn't make as much sense. It wouldn't be as healthy for the businesses and the workers both in Wichita. Diversification could be a lot simpler than some people might think, and beginning with those simple steps can be useful.

For example, we look at Spirit AeroSystems, our largest employer here in Wichita. It was pointed out to me multiple times the ways in which Spirit has diversified itself. For example, it has a partnership to manufacture medical ventilators now during the pandemic; picked that up pretty early on. It's not something that Spirit typically does, right? But they have the skills, and they're able to train for that within their existing workforce.

Also picking up more defense work. The company announced a couple months ago that it received an $80 million contract from the Department of Defense to support defense projects. And those are two things that diversify the kind of work that Spirit does.

So it's not a big, brand new company, and it's not necessarily an expansion of Spirit. But it is Spirit saying we can do different work; we have that capability with our workforce here. And those projects are going to keep people employed.

Wichita, as you might imagine, has talked for decades, if not longer, about being less reliant on aircraft manufacturing. Has the city and the region made any progress at all on that front?

When I spoke with Jeremy Hill at WSU, he says that it is more diversified than we were decades ago. And the folks with the Greater Wichita Partnership said the same thing.

There's a number of reasons for that. You know, some of it's very intentional that there has been some progress made over time. And some of it is, what I've heard of, is creating opportunity out of necessity. Aircraft has struggled before. This is not the first time. But out of necessity in the past, the economy has had to diversify a little bit each time. So there has been progress made. What I'm hearing from people is that there’s more room to go. There's more progress to be made still.

(The National Center for Aviation Training) … and WSU Tech (have) really aligned with training workers, mostly in the aviation field. Are those skills transferable to another industry then because aviation is not hiring right now? So if I'm at WSU Tech getting some advanced manufacturing skills, what do I do with them in Wichita?

Highly skilled manufacturing is such a key part of Wichita, and our workers have those skills. They know how to use them, and they can be used in other fields as well, whether it's elsewhere in manufacturing – non-aviation manufacturing – we still have jobs there in highly skilled areas. The folks of the Greater Wichita Partnership also pointed out to me that these jobs are transferable to fields like logistics or cybersecurity. So there are other areas that make sense and jobs within those fields that are more related to the skills that Wichita workers already have.

The infrastructure is very important ... because that infrastructure over time has been a great benefit to Wichita's economy, to its businesses and to its workers, both. It's something that is costly over time and that does not pop up overnight. Those investments have been made over years and arguably over decades, and that means a lot that we are able to have these places like WSU Tech and workers and young people are able to come and really get talented skill in aerospace manufacturing that they won't find elsewhere. And that makes our workers with our skills here very unique compared to other economies across the country. We have something here in that infrastructure and in the skills of our workers that other local economies do not, and that should not be taken for granted.

It makes Wichita special. It makes it competitive. And when we think about diversifying the economy, it's important to think about how that infrastructure has built skills. So if we bring in new companies and other areas, if they need different kinds of training, different kinds of skills, then we have to think about how costly and how much time it could take to build up those new skills over time. And so that's where diversification can become difficult, if the cost falls on workers and their families, if that cost falls on working people to get new education or new skills training, you know, that that cost can fall to the workers. It's not always the best thing.

Aviation, when things are going well, is a very high-paying industry, which is why Wichita always fell in love with it. When aviation turns around and it always has in the past … do you think city leaders can resist the temptation to fall back on their reliance in aircraft manufacturing and abandon these diversification plans?

I think that will depend on the level of diversification that happens in the years that aircraft is making its recovery. So if they're able to (make) long-term investments in diversification in the next few years, then Wichita can stick to that. And at the same time, when aircraft recovers it's not a bad thing to return to it either.

I think one of the things that I've heard a lot, and that is a good point to remember here, is diversification does not mean giving up on aircraft. It does not mean saying goodbye to aircraft. We have this infrastructure here, we have such a skilled workforce, and there's a lot of value in that in the end. So it's not trying to downplay that significance or to get rid of it, but it's trying to strengthen the economy as a whole. So if there can be long-lasting impacts in diversification made in the coming years, and I think Wichita can stick to those and diversify bit by bit … but returning to aviation as a whole is not going to be a bad thing either.