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Hayseed Tech Hub

Why you should care

Wichita could be a gut check for American manufacturing, writ large.

“Meet the country’s top advanced industry hotspots,” reads the headline of a new research memo from the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Chances are you’ve met them already — the list has the usual American high-tech and manufacturing hubs in its top five. Except for one.

Wichita, Kansas. Isn’t this more of a wagon wheel than a tech hub? Yes and no. Turns out that this city of 400,000 in the American heartland is a mecca of airplane manufacturing, the 20th-century version of a high-tech field. It’s also home to Koch Industries, the behemoth that gave the Koch brothers all that money to donate to Republican causes. (Koch Industries is in chemicals, minerals and manufacturing.) But overall, the city’s economic outlook in the 21st century mirrors some challenges for American manufacturing as a whole.

Brookings researchers Kenan Fikri and Mark Muro define “advanced industries” as those that feature high research and development costs and employ a lot of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workers. All told, they lumped together more than 50 industries — ranging from manufacturing sectors to energy to high-tech services — into this category. And then they tried to figure out which American metro areas had the best advanced industry bases, defined as those where the industry employed the biggest share of workers.

People in any tech sector other than aerospace, and the public at large, are pretty clueless about Wichita’s wealth of technical expertise.

Not surprisingly, San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara in California, aka Silicon Valley, was No. 1. But then there was Wichita way up there too, at No. 3. Like Palm Bay, Florida (another improbable list-maker), Wichita is intensively concentrated in a few advanced industries, says Muro: That makes it vulnerable. But the Brookings study meant to highlight linkages between different industries, Muro says, and Wichita’s linkages give it a strong chance to reinvent itself. The Midwestern city is a microcosm of the problems that traditional manufacturing operations face, as well as their potential.

For Wichita, the problem isn’t that its aerospace industry no longer creates wealth — it does. But “aerospace manufacturing employment is a fraction of what it was a decade ago,” which is a fraction of what it was two decades ago, etc., points out Jeremy Hill, director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State’s business school. That’s because the industry now relies on digital technology and robotics, and no longer needs the same amount of human labor. That trend was accelerated by the global recession, but in aerospace, unlike a lot of other industries, “those jobs are not coming back,” Hill says.

What community and business leaders are focused on now is diversifying in other high-tech industries that can take advantage of the skills, know-how and infrastructure that Wichita already has in place, says Tim Chase, president of the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. But when it comes to attracting new firms, “one of the biggest issues we have is the image of Kansas,” says Hill. Within the aerospace industry, everyone in the world knows Wichita is a central player. But people in any other tech sector, and the public at large, are pretty clueless about the region’s wealth of technical expertise. “When people think of Kansas, they’re thinking of The Wizard of Oz. They’re thinking of open areas with cows. And they don’t really think of anything else.”

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