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What Cities Need to Close the Skills Gap for 'Smart Jobs'

"Advanced industry" jobs are expected to drive economic growth. But cities must invest in training and education to build a qualified workforce.

A woman conducting a workshop at the National Center for Aviation Training in Wichita.
A woman conducting a workshop at the National Center for Aviation Training in Wichita.
(FlickrCC/Ted Eytan)
It may seem that Wichita, Kan., is exaggerating just a bit when it calls itself the “Air Capital of the World.” But the city is home to several major aircraft manufacturers that play an outsized role in supporting the region’s economy. So when industry executives said they were having trouble finding workers with the latest skills, local leaders listened. The result was a partnership of area governments, colleges and businesses that led to the birth of the National Center for Aviation Training.

Five years after its opening, the state-of-the-art facility now churns out a steady pool of graduates ready to work for area firms. It is creating the type of skills pipeline that all regions seek in developing an educated workforce. 

Aerospace manufacturers were the major reason Wichita ranked near the top in a Brookings Institution report published earlier this year that identifies a set of 50 “advanced industries” likely to be key in supporting sustainable economic growth. These companies invest heavily in technology research and development while employing substantial numbers of workers with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills. Advanced industries employ roughly 12 million workers nationwide spanning the manufacturing, energy and services sectors. Although they account for just 9 percent of total employment, they directly or indirectly support nearly a quarter of the country’s jobs. 

Mark Muro, the policy director of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, says education and STEM training matter more today than ever as technology plays a larger role in products, services and the production process itself. In 1980, 63 percent of advanced industry workers had never attended college. By 2013, this share had dropped to just 25 percent. Meanwhile, millions of low-value production jobs have moved overseas.

It’s not too surprising then that many of the metro areas faring best in the report tended to benefit from higher educational attainment and the presence of a top university science program. Advanced industry jobs account for 30 percent of total employment in the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, Calif., metro area. This is by far the highest share nationally. Roughly a fifth of the adults in the region hold STEM degrees, also the highest of any large metro area.

In Wichita, advanced industries make up about 15 percent of total employment, the third largest share nationally. Aerospace-oriented firms in the Wichita area have clustered geographically, enabling them to share skilled labor, laboratories and local supply chains. This is true of other advanced manufacturing areas such as Virginia Beach, Va., where the focus is on shipbuilding, and San Francisco, where it is on computer systems.

In the few years leading up to the recession, Wichita aerospace manufacturers began to see baby boomers head for retirement, and they couldn’t find enough qualified workers to take their place. A technical training board of business and community leaders was formed to seek a solution to the region’s growing skills gap. That solution, the National Center for Aviation Training, serves approximately 1,350 students, who earn associate degrees, technical certifications and 90-day certificates covering about 20 aviation-specific programs, such as composite technology and robotics. “We’re so closely aligned with industry that we’re often using their subject matter experts and equipment to help teach, so that we’re really serving as a pipeline,” says Joe Ontjes, a vice president at Wichita Area Technical College, where the training center is located.

Most recently, busloads of high schoolers have been showing up on campus. That’s because Kansas lawmakers passed a bill funding technical training for the students, allowing them to complete dual-credit courses that give them an early advantage in their careers.

If the first few years of the recovery are any indication, advanced industries should loom large in propping up regional economies. Since 2010, the advanced sector’s employment and output growth rates have been double those of the rest of the economy. The Brookings study also reported that workers employed in these STEM-intensive occupations earned an average of $90,000 in total compensation as of 2013, nearly twice that of other workers.

Still, America’s historical advantage over other nations in this area appears to be slipping. Advanced industries’ share of national employment declined 2.2 percent since 2000, the largest decline among 14 countries Brookings reviewed. “It’s not going to be possible for the nation to have a prosperous economy without a truly vibrant and competitive advanced industries sector,” says Muro.

Large Metro Areas With Most Advanced Industries Jobs

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Metro Area Map

View an interactive map showing changes in the presence of advanced industry jobs for the 100 largest metro areas.

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Mike Maciag is Data Editor for GOVERNING.
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