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Economy

Wichita Faces A 'Brain Drain' Problem

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emilegraphics, flickr Creative Commons
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Wichita State University hosted an economic outlook conference last month. Local business owners were told that Wichita’s labor force is likely to grow at a rate of about 1 percent in 2016. That’s less than the state and national average. So, why is Kansas’ largest city lagging behind? KMUW’s Sean Sandefur reports on Wichita's persistent problem of “brain drain.”

    

Show Me The Jobs
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Credit wichita.edu

A university is a good place to start if you want to find youth in their natural habitat.

The smell of pizza, french fries and coffee compete at Wichita State’s Rhatigan Student Center. Kori Dacosta is on his way to class. He’s currently a junior majoring in computer engineering and is a Wichita-native. He loves his city, but understands it has a tough time retaining young people such as himself.

“(Wichita) is not as developed because people always feel like they have to go somewhere else,” Dacosta says.

Dacosta wants to stick around his hometown. His family and friends are here, and he thinks there’s plenty to do. But he’s worried about job opportunities. He thinks too many of his fellow students are leaving after graduating and maybe, if they’d stick around, they themselves could create the very jobs they seek.

“I feel like if people with entrepreneurial minds stayed here in Wichita and actually worked on developing businesses here, there’d be plenty of opportunities for managerial positions and all kinds of other job opportunities like that,” he says.

Sitting at a table nearby is a sophomore biology major Sara Vora, also from Wichita. She plans on going to medical school, but ultimately wants to stay in town. She says the city has a lot to offer in terms of entertainment and quality of life, but she worries about finding a job here. Perhaps, she thinks, she'll have to further her career elsewhere.

“If I am presented with that opportunity, I would be willing to move," Vora says. "Because, better pay, a better environment overall. That would be more appealing to me.”

It’s not just native Wichitans who are uneasy about what the city has to offer. Senior Rebecca Haase is from Michigan. She came to Wichita State because it was cheaper than going in-state.

“I would like to go on and get my master’s," Hasse says. "The degrees I’m looking at, basically there aren’t schools in Kansas. Another reason, my boyfriend is majoring in education, and he does not like the prospect of being a teacher in Kansas.”

It's Been a Slow Recovery
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Credit Abigail Wilson
Jeremy Hill speaking at the 2015 Economic Outlook Conference

Data from the IRS confirms that people are moving out of Wichita to other states. More than 6,000 people left Sedgwick County in 2013, and fewer than 5,000 moved in.

Jeremy Hill of Wichita State’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research forecasts the city’s economic growth each year. He thinks a large portion of those leaving Wichita are young adults.

“That might be some people in their older years, but I think it’s probably more pressure in the younger years," Hill says. "Where you have people who have gotten their skills, went to college, are trying to build a family, and they can’t move up in that company. They can’t move up within their specific occupation.”

Hill says that’s mostly caused by a nearly stagnant local economy. Wichita lost thousands of jobs during the Great Recession, and it’s been a slow recovery. Many companies in Wichita aren’t expanding, and there aren’t a lot of outside companies keen on investing here. That means fewer job opportunities for young people. But, there’s still plenty of hope. Jeremy Hill says Wichita doesn’t need to reinvent itself. It just needs to better market the city’s resources to young people.

“We are losing out to other states because they are attracting them to their areas," he says. "Although that sounds very gloomy, we should realize we have a lot of resources here. We’re just not capitalizing on our resources efficiently or effectively. For a city this size, we should have a much broader household name.”

Attracting and Retaining Young People

As other cities are becoming more expensive, Wichita’s low cost of living and improved downtown area can be a big attraction for young adults. A company that set down roots in Old Town is doing just that.

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Credit Sean Sandefur
Lathi De Silva and Tom Bertels in the offices of Sullivan, Higdon and Sink

Tom Bertels and Lathi De Silva are walking through the offices of Sullivan, Higdon and Sink, a marketing firm located in Wichita’s Old Town district. Bertels is a managing partner and De Silva works in public relations. The offices are in an old Coleman lantern factory. Natural light beams down from above as employees work in open cubicles – there are comfy chairs and sofas nearby.

“We intentionally have an open space because we want to collaborate," De Silva says. "So you have lots of tables so people can hunker down and talk through issues. We’ve got a patio. We actually had a group start a container garden on the balcony so people are able to grow herbs for their lunch if they want to.”

The marketing firm has existed for more than 40 years. Their flagship clients include Cargill, Pizza Hut, AMC Movie Theaters and many more. They have offices in Kansas City and Washington, D.C. -- but Wichita is still their home. They’ve had success in bringing young people from outside of Wichita into their firm and holding on to them. As De Silva says, it’s a matter of thinking creatively about what employment benefits look like.

“This generation wants to have the flexibility of picking what’s relevant to them," he says. "And so, instead of just a blanket wellness benefit, where we used to say, 'OK, we’ll put X dollars towards your gym membership,' now we’ve expanded that to, 'You want to put that towards running four marathons and you want to have help with the fees to run those marathons,' then you have the flexibility to do that.”

There is, no doubt, a Google-esque feel here. Recreation rooms with pool tables and foosball, beer nights with co-workers talking shop. The company also encourages employees to further their education.

For Sullivan, Higdon and Sink, the idea is pretty simple: If employees are happy, the work will be better. And they can share in the company’s success.

“Every employee has the opportunity to buy stock after they’ve been here for six months," Bertels says. "A lot of people do take us up on that, and we think it’s one of those other things that make employees feel literal ownership in the company and want to stick with us and help make us grow.”

Just as small businesses like Sullivan, Higdon and Sink are competing with other firms for clients and talented employees, so is Wichita. There’s a general sense of ‘build it and they will come.’

Jeremy Hill of the Center for Economic Development says if the jobs are there, young talent will stick around. He says the city must find leadership, whether public, private or both, that can create those jobs, and market the potential of Wichita. 

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Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter @SeanSandefur

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.