Productive Workforce

Worker productivity in Kansas City springs from many sources, including higher levels of education, a generational work ethic, and a diverse economy that helps keep workers on the job.

What constitutes a productive work force, and which communities can boast of having one? That riddle has confronted executives pondering expansions into new territories and site-selection experts for decades.

But let’s start with one basic premise: It seems superfluous to point this out, but a productive worker is one who is actually employed. In an economy like the one this nation has endured since 2008, however, the fact that workers
are indeed working is a very big deal.

And it’s particularly big for the Kansas City area. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Kansas City MSA in June 2013 had an unemployment rate of 6.6 percent. That was a full 1.2 percentage points below the national jobless rate of 7.8 percent. Viewed from another angle, the national unemployment rate was fully 18 percent higher than this region’s.

And in the regions nearby, the figures are even more impressive. At the northern reach of the MSA, St. Joseph, Mo., boasted a rate of 5.8 percent. Among nearly 375 metropolitan areas nationwide, St. Joseph was tied with Lawrence, Kan., at No. 52 for lowest jobless rate. Just outside of the Kansas City area, the college towns of Columbia, Mo., at 5.4 percent, and Manhattan, Kan., at 5.7 percent, also stood out at No. 38 and No. 45. Topeka, Kan., checked in at No. 79, with 6.3 percent.

Kansas City’s ranking, where it tied for No. 100 on the list, made it one of the largest metropolitan areas with jobless figures more than 1 percentage point below the national average. Only Minneapolis-St. Paul, Salt Lake City, Seattle, San Francisco and the nation’s capital had lower levels.

Driving that, business leaders say, is the broad diversification of the regional economy as well as the types of sectors that dominate here. You might not realize it based on the daily headlines, but Kansas City is the agribusiness capital. It sits in the middle of or near a number of value chains—the beef industry, pork production, poultry production, and grain production. The four largest private companies here, in fact, have aggregate revenues of more than $35 billion, and are all part of the food chain—as are a handful of “smaller” companies that still report more than $1 billion in sales.

That’s a powerful, stabilizing factor on the regional economy, because irrespective of the price of beef today relative to that of pork, chicken or turkey, people are going to eat whether the economy is up or down.

Large, locally headquartered employers like Sprint, Hallmark Cards, Cerner Corp., with thousands of employees on their payrolls, hail from the sharply differing sectors of telecommunications, health-care informatics and personal expressions. And even the century-old manufacturing stalwarts like Ford and General Motors, which employ more than 8,000 between them here, provide relatively good-paying jobs without exposing the region to the kinds of wild swings some communities experience when car sales surge or plunge.

As a side note, those two vehicle makers have been in this market for many decades, even as the brands have opened and closed plants around the nation. Throughout that time, they have reinvested heavily in their assembly plants here, providing some assurance of continued long-term presences. And one of the key reasons chief executives of those carmakers cite for the latest rounds of plant improvements, totaling nearly $1.8 billion, is the elevated productivity of workers in this region.

Another measure of productivity is educational attainment. Nationwide, less than 55 percent of working-age Americans have gone on to take college courses; the figure for the Kansas City MSA is better than 6 percentage points above that mark, at 60.54. That includes those who started college but stopped or completed associate’s degrees. But it also includes those with bachelor’s and graduate degrees, who make up 31.56 of the adult work force, compared to less than 27.5 percent of the population nationwide.

Harder to gauge is the productivity that’s grounded in work ethic. But as sociologists and others who study the Kansas City region have long noted, many members of a work force roughly 1.3 million strong are just one or two generations removed from the farm—if that.

And the self-reliance, focus and determination of the American farmer are all qualities that have easily translated into the workplace for those moving into urban areas.

Like other Midwestern cities, the Kansas City region is blessed with an infusion of talent as college graduates from throughout the two-state area migrate here.