Long an aviation and aerospace manufacturing hub, the Metro Wichita region is preparing for the future by diversifying its economy, attracting new industries and repurposing a highly skilled workforce.
“We have an extraordinary amount of skills in our labor force that many other cities would love to possess. Specifically, we have one of the highest densities of manufacturing skills in our workforce per capita of any city in the country,” says Tim Chase, president of the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. “But when you have occupations such as metal fabricator or blade operator, the title doesn’t really reflect the skills those folks possess – skills that can transfer into the next generation of both technical and professional jobs. Math skills, critical-thinking skills, being able to work in a team environment, being able to analyze situations and operations and take action – those are the basic skills that you would find in our workforce in very large numbers.”
Repackaging the Workforce
Chase says to attract new industries, economic development organizations are recasting the region’s workforce in terms of skills rather than occupations to match those skills to industries in need of workers. He points to cyber security and 3D printing as examples. Thanks in part to certificate and degree programs at colleges and universities such as Butler Community College, Wichita boasts a large number of employees skilled in information technology.
“We offer degrees and certificates in cyber security, networking, i3D and Microsoft certification,” says Dr. Roberto Rodriguez, dean of career and technical education at Butler Community College. “We define a clear pathway with stackable credentials for our students, so you can receive a certificate of completion in a subject in as little time as a semester or you can work toward an associate’s degree.”
Another competitive advantage held by Wichita’s workforce is in professional services. Chase says the region has more aviation and aerospace engineers per capita than any other city in the country – many of whom received their degrees from Wichita State University’s prestigious College of Engineering, which emphasizes experiential learning and hands-on training. In 2015, the university breaks ground on a 160,000-square-foot experiential learning building equipped with state-of-the-art laboratories, advanced manufacturing facilities, business accelerators and maker support systems.
“There are some areas where it’s very clear we have a shortage of workers. In any of the computing areas, there’s a shortage of workers. In other areas, it’s going to require us to broaden our economic base, and we have the opportunity to do so,” says Dr. John Bardo, president of Wichita State University. “The biggest technology transfer the university does is graduation in May. We send out thousands of educated people into the workforce, and that’s a huge technology transfer opportunity. It’s not just that we’re pushing for [our graduates] to get jobs here in town. We think that’s important, but we know that creating new businesses with the new ideas [our students] have is actually one of the better ways in which you can increase employment, so we’re focusing a lot of time and effort on helping our students actually create new businesses.”
Diversifying Existing Industries
Even as the region’s higher education community moves to prepare students for jobs in emerging industries, Chase says the region is working within the established aviation and aerospace industries for growth opportunities.
“One of the fastest growing areas [within aviation] is in the maintenance, repair and overhaul industry (or MRO). We are exploring a variety of companies and opportunities, driven in no small part to the Boeing flight line facilities,” Chase says.
Boeing released 1.3 million square feet of hangar and office space at McConnell Air Force Base for lease or sale. Chase says the complex makes Wichita an ideal location for growing a MRO industry.
Another resource is the National Center for Aviation Training (NCAT), a more than $80 million, state-of-the-art training facility. In its 230,000 square feet of space, NCAT can provide technical training for at least 1,500 students in both day and night classes. The state-of-the-art facility is a linchpin in the region's efforts to offer hands-on, real-world training in general-aviation manufacturing, and aircraft and power-plant mechanics.
While NCAT provides the aviation industry with an workers with the skills to build the aircraft of the future, its also helping to develop a workforce that can meet the needs of a variety of industries.
“The primary focus is on aviation training, but so many of the skills that you see in aviation transfer to a lot of other industry demands, such as reading blueprints and analyzing complex problems," Chase says. "Those are all part of the training that’s done at NCAT as well.”
Learn more about Wichita's top industries.