Business Culture: A Productive Work Force


Writing for the Show-Me Institute in 2016, Wendell Cox observed that the Kansas City area stood out as a location for business based on multiple factors, but one had a particular relevance to employers: Productivity.

“Kansas City compares favorably to all of The Economist’s 10 most livable cities in housing affordability and traffic congestion, and outperforms all but three in productivity,” Cox said. “A middle-income quality of life equal to that of Kansas City cannot be achieved in any
of the most livable international cities.”

And that’s where Cox may have been  onto something: Addressing the kinds of “most-livable cities” lists produced by organizations both data and click-driven, he noted that “the principal purpose of such reviews is to inform international companies seeking to relocate highly paid executives to other cities. Needless to say, what may make a city livable to an executive with $500,000 or more in annual income is not likely to have much relevance to middle-income households, which had a median income of approximately $54,000 in the United States.”

That bit of insight, it seems, is not lost on people who work in Kansas City. The simple fact is that high-level executives are likely to have a pretty good life wherever they go. But an employee in the Kansas City area can have a better life at that middle income level than, in many cases, twice that on the coasts. Perhaps that’s the motivation for fewer work absences among the work force here, and productivity metrics that have prompted billions in investments from national powers like Ford Motor Co. and General Motors.

The Midwestern work for which America’s heartland is famous is grounded on a demographic reality: Compared to coastal populations, there are comparatively few big cities in the vast expanse between the Rockies and the Appalachian mountains. The vast majority of people in
these cities are just a generation or two removed from the farm, where concepts of self-reliance and, yes, even entrepreneurship weren’t just
lifestyle choices, but basic survival skills.

And perhaps a piece of the productivity here comes from a work force that is comparatively better-educated: Of the nation’s 52 largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas, Kansas City ranks No. 29 with 33.7 percent of its population over age 25 holding at least a bachelor’s degree.
That puts this region significantly ahead of such markets as Los Angeles, Houston, Orlando and San Antonio, as well as peer intermountain cities of Columbus,
Indianapolis, Cincinnati, St. Louis
and Cleveland (all below the 30-percent
level for bachelor’s degree attainment).
In a knowledge economy, that kind
of educational attainment can make a
difference. And it’s one reason why the
Kansas City metro area boasted a 3.4 percent
unemployment rate in the spring
of 2019—nearly half a point below the national
average of 3.8 percent.
The downside of that? There is, at
this point in the economic cycle, a major
quest for talent across both bluecollar
and white-collar industries, that
isn’t likely to let up as the demographic
trends have been chipping away at college
enrollment for nearly a decade.