This week, I joined Lt. Governor Rogers and our partners with the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and the Kansas Manufacturing Council to kick off the 2019 Kansas Manufacturing Summit. This important gathering brought together business leaders and industry experts to discuss the future of the manufacturing sector in Kansas.
When I think about the Kansas economy and our overall identity as a state, it’s clear that manufacturing plays a central role. And this is something I’ve known since early on in my life. The picture that often comes to mind for me is from the summer of 1997, between my Sophomore and Junior years at KU, when I cleaned braiders at Gates Rubber Company in Iola.
I remember the feeling of working with an incredibly complex machine system, with (literally) tons and tons of moving pieces. The machinery I was working on was braiding metal lining together for rubber hoses that we produced at the plant. So yes, I was part of the overall effort to produce hoses, but what was my actual role? Well, throughout the process, the machines produced a fair amount of metal shavings, which were covered in oil, and this mixture would build up on top of the machines.
My role was simple: to scoop the metal-laden oil off the top of the machines with a paint scraper. Then I would spray the surface with industrial solvents. That’s it. Not glamorous work, to say the least.
Looking back on it now, there were a lot of lessons that I learned during my time there. From the time I got in trouble with the plant manager for not wearing steel-toed boots one day, to the conversations that would happen in the break room with people from all different parts of the company—from workers like me to the accountants, engineers, logistics experts and even the plant manager who made frequent trips to China and other areas on behalf of the business. The work of the company involves many people, with a diverse array of responsibilities that make it all possible. And through all that work, this facility played a central role in the life of our little town, and these jobs were highly coveted.
Gates Corporation played an important role in the southeast Kansas economy then, and they still do today—as one of the area’s largest employers with about 550 manufacturing jobs at their facility in Allen County. And the folks who work there are proud to be part of it.
Manufacturing is part of who we are, part of our identity as Kansans. We make things with our hands. We utilize machinery and tools to build things that have value beyond our individual role in the process. And we make things that go far beyond the borders of our towns, beyond the borders of our state, and even beyond the borders of our country.
I’m pleased in my role at the Department of Commerce that I can be part of helping to elevate the manufacturing sector of our economy. I’m proud to partner with KANSASWORKS to support programs and initiatives that are working to develop the workforce that our companies need. I’m also proud of the work our team does on Business Development and Export Services that help companies find new markets and create new opportunities to make things in Kansas. Together, we can be part of making things that provide value to others but also that shape the way we see ourselves.
To grow these efforts, we’re taking a fresh look at much of our work at the Department of Commerce, and we’re working to rebuild and restore the agency to the “best in class” status that has led to success in the past. We’re undertaking a comprehensive strategic planning process for economic development in Kansas. Not since the Redwood-Krider report in 1986 have we taken a deep look at the Kansas economy and aligned our economic development tools with our state’s strategic opportunities as we look down the road. And a huge component to this plan will be a special focus on what it will take to grow the manufacturing sector of our economy.
The state of Kansas needs to demonstrate that “we get it,” and we need to put together a plan that reflects this and demonstrates to others across the country—and worldwide—that we’re looking long-range and we have the right environment and tools in place to encourage growth and investment. We need people to know that this is a great state to do business. And we need your help to get this right. So we welcome your engagement in this process as we move forward.
I look forward to the ways we can take our state’s manufacturing sector to new heights.
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