The encouraging thing is this: An earnest conversation about the metro area’s economic future – rooted in data, reason and long-term thinking, not supposition and the politics of the moment – is underway.
But let’s note some cautionary points: This will take some time and, given the number of players – businesses, colleges and universities, local and state governments – it’s likely to have fits and starts.
David Warm, executive director of the Mid-America Regional Council, has been pushing hard to promote a conversation about “an innovation economy.” At Tuesday’s MARC board meeting, he again stressed the need for the area to find a piece of the economy that’s “innovative and globally relevant” for Kansas City to focus on. His board is made up of local elected officials from both sides of the state line, and he’s making it a priority to set aside board time for longer discussions of the region’s economic competitiveness.
An in-depth analysis is in the works, but on Tuesday Warm laid out some of the basics of the conversation. In a nutshell, Kansas City is generally doing OK compared with similar metros around the country but there’s nothing spectacular that stands out. By various measures – educational attainment, job growth, others – Kansas City is “failing at none but lagging in many,” he said.
Take worker productivity. Kansas City is a little bit above the national average – but the nation is catching up.
“With every passing year ... our competitive edge is shrinking,” Warm said.
Other parts of Tuesday’s snapshot:
• Strong sectors in the area include communications, as well as engineering and architecture. Increasingly, life sciences is part of that picture. “And that would not have shown up (in the data) a decade ago,” Warm said.
But there’s a catch. It’s not just being good at something. It’s being good in an area that’s growing. Sprint, for example, puts the area on the map in communications but jobs there – and in the sector – are shrinking. It’s the same in logistics, another strength for the area. Employment is not growing, so that won’t lead the area to broader prosperity.
• Take a close look at advanced manufacturing. “Almost all manufacturing in the United States that is competitive is advanced,” Warm said. MARC points out that automakers, which account for 17,000 jobs in the area, fall into that category.
• Is your area producing lots of patents, suggesting high growth ahead? Kansas City does OK on that, but those mostly come out of a small number of companies, including Sprint and its spinoff, Embarq.
• Are startups staying here? One hears anecdotally, Warm said, that new companies eventually end up on one coast or the other when they need capital to keep going and growing. “And that’s an area that perhaps requires some particular attention in our region,” he said.
Really, however, there are even more fundamental issues, and they relate to education. Early education, Warm points out, is a “building block to lifetime success” and yet fewer than half of the metro’s 3- to 5-year-olds get early childhood education and the Head Start program reaches only 18 percent of those eligible for it. The vast majority of early learning teachers lack training beyond a child development associate certificate.
Jump ahead to college education and, sure, the area does about as well as other cities in educational attainment, but that’s not quite the right measure or the right question. It’s the same thing you hear over and over, and it will no doubt be part of the longer conversation: We’re not producing workers with the skills companies need, and access to higher education is an issue.
One quick, rough illustration of that is this: About one-third of the population has a college degree, but 40 percent of the jobs out there require one.
“So there’s a mismatch,” Warm says.
Giving to others
A quick follow-up from something I mentioned here a couple of months ago: Certified Radon auctioned off its Missouri Mavericks suite for a game in late January. It was raising money for the Children’s Mercy Hospital pediatric cancer research unit.
Last week, the company presented a check for $1,500, and the Mavericks’ mascot, Mac, visited with patients and families. The company also provided seats at recent games for children in treatment at the hospital. Certified Radon does testing and mitigation.
Hippie Chow had a good run. In this year’s Battle of the Brands, the Independence brand of good-and-good-for-you granola got past three competitors in the microenterprise bracket before falling in the final to FireBug BBQ, a Kansas City company that makes sauces, rubs and marinades. Hippie Chow is part of the Berry Nutty Farm, based at the Ennovation Center, the business incubator in Independence.
The Battle of the Brands us conducted by KCSourceLink through an online vote. Other winners:
• Bricks and mortar – The Roasterie. (Yes, I more or less called that one in this space, but then again it wasn’t a hard pick, certainly easier than the NCAAs.)
• Established and growing – Sporting KC.
• Tech/innovation led – Red Nova Labs.
Jeff Fox is The Examiner’s business reporter and editor. Reach him at 816-350-6313 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow on Twitter @FoxEJC or @Jeff_Fox.