With Wichita reeling from layoffs at its biggest employer and the parts supply chain that feeds its factory, Gov. Laura Kelly was in town Thursday for an update on community efforts to weather the upheaval caused by the worldwide grounding of the Boeing 737 Max jetliner.
She left feeling assured that Wichita is doing what it can to address the crisis through retraining, job matching and in the long run, diversifying the local economy.
“Quite honestly, I can’t imagine any community or any state responding as well as this community and this state has responded to this particular issue,” Kelly said.
The issue is a community wide loss of employment due to last year’s grounding — and the subsequent halt to production — of the 737 Max after two crashes overseas killed a total of 346 people.
Some 2,800 layoffs have been announced at Spirit AeroSystems, Wichita’s major employer that makes the fuselages for the troubled jet. And the pain has rippled through a long chain of smaller suppliers who make specialized parts for Spirit to assemble at its sprawling plant.
Kelly said so far, the state’s unemployment system remains stable.
“We’re still in the phase where most of the workers, at least the Spirit ones, are still being paid so we haven’t seen the economic impact of that,” Kelly said. “We do have some supply chain issues where we are seeing the layoffs and some unemployment kinds of things, so we’ll deal with that.”
During a 20-minute square-table discussion at Groover Labs, Kelly asked for and got updated statistics from a variety of local government and private-sector officials who have formed a working group to address the layoff situation.
County Commission Chairman Pete Meitzner highlighted a program at Wichita State Tech, where he serves as a board member, that offers free classes to laid-off aircraft workers so they can acquire skills they need to transition to other jobs. He said that program has had 180 applications so far.
Amanda Duncan of the Wichita Workforce Center reported that the agency has met with more than 1,000 workers who are transitioning, including 500 seeking individualized career services.
The center is working directly with 18 companies that are going through layoffs and has had 75 companies reaching out to hire displaced workers, she said. “We have a series of job fairs, at least one a week,” she said.
Jeff Fluhr of the Greater Wichita Partnership reported there have been 4,600 unique visitors and 7,200 page views to a Web site, www.aircapitaloftheworld.com/commitment, set up to provide information on where impacted workers can go for services.
The abrupt halt on 737 Max production has taken away one key tool the state had used in the past to help Wichita smooth out aviation slowdowns.
Kelly had earlier hoped to use work-share programs, where the state collaborates with businesses to use unemployment payments to subsidize salaries and help companies keep employees working.
“That just wasn’t going to work for this point, because of the elimination of production, not just slowing it down,” Kelly said. “We couldn’t use that technique, so we’re implementing whatever else we can.”
So far, there’s been scarce information out of Washington as to progress toward getting the modifications needed to get the Max back in the air.
Kelly said more clarity from federal aviation authorities would help.
“We need to know where this is going and what the time frame is going to be to help us plan better one way or the other, so that would be great,” Kelly said.
However, she added that she wants to see the federal authorities take their time and make sure the 737 Max is ready for a safe return to flight.
“I don’t want them to make a rushed decision based on political pressure,” she said.