Leading Industries

Manufacturing muscle remains the key driver of the Kansas economy.

By Dennis Boone

With all due respect to the late, great George Bernard Shaw, he missed the mark just a tad in declaring that “if all the economists were laid end to end, they wouldn’t reach a conclusion.”

In point of fact, they do reach conclusions. Quite often.

It’s just that they’re not always correct, and when they’re off, they can be off by a lot. Consider the example of projections from state labor officials as recently as 2018. That would be the year, they decreed, when manufacturing in Kansas would surrender its spot atop the private employment-sector totem pole. The heir apparent? Health care and social services.

When the final numbers were in, it wasn’t even close: Manufacturing continued to hold its grip on the No. 1 spot in 2019, and—global pandemic notwithstanding—again throughout 2020. Health care did work its way up the hierarchy but finished a distant third to real estate as a share of the Kansas GDP.

That $27.5 billion in manufacturing output represented nearly 15.9 percent of the overall GDP in Kansas, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. 

Those economists’ projections for 2018 might have been influenced by a surprising trend within that sector. Thanks to innovations and technologies that have made industrial workers more efficient, fewer of them have been needed. As a result, manufacturing employment fell from a 30-year peak of 206,400 in 1998 to 165,000 in 2020—a decline of more than 20 percent, even as output surged.

So, where does the manufacturing might in Kansas originate?

A good deal of it is from the production of aircraft in Wichita and passenger vehicles in Kansas City. Wichita is known as the Air Capital of the World for good reasons since it turns out more light planes than any other city on the planet. Kansas City, home to a General Motors’ assembly plant for passenger vehicles, also adds to the mix. On top of those are the hundreds of smaller contractors, with tens of thousands of employees, providing parts and partial assemblies for those large companies.

In the decades after the advent of commercial aviation a century ago, Wichita became a magnet for airplane production. Stearman Aircraft—a fore-runner of the Boeing Co.—Cessna, Beechcraft, and Learjet all set up shop there. Time and consolidation have whittled away at the number of brands—conglomerate Textron now owns both the Beechcraft and Cessna labels—but aviation employment reigns in the city’s workforce.

Before the recession of 1991, Boeing’s employment alone had soared past 25,000. Since then, the company sold off its commercial division, now known as Spirit Aerosystems, which is still among the largest private employers in the state, with a goal of having more than 12,500 on the payroll by 2024, pulling slightly ahead of where it was before pandemic-induced layoffs and furloughs hit in 2020.

The other strong manufacturing presence in the state has been in Kansas City, Kan., where General Motors operates the
Fairfax Assembly Plant, employing more than 2,100 workers. Over the past decade, the company executed multiple upgrades that virtually assured continuing production for years to come.

Manufacturing’s strength often comes as a surprise to those who think of the Kansas economy with their stomachs, not their heads, but clearly, there’s a lot more going on in the state than livestock production and wheat farming. Perhaps surprisingly, either manufacturing nor the ascendant health care/social services employment is currently the big jobs generator in the state. 

That honor falls to the overly broad trade, transportation, and utilities sector, as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics—278,400 workers. Not far be-hind is the state itself—the folks on the public dime at the federal level and those in city halls, county courthouses, and school districts across the state.

Government jobs in 2020 accounted for nearly one-fifth of employment in the state. Roughly 247,000 people, or 18.5 percent of working Kansans, were collecting a public paycheck.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, wholesale and retail trade generated $13 billion and $11.5 billion in GDP. No other sector had output above $10 billion.