By TIM UNRUH
Salina Airport Authority
Saline County’s economy is performing well based on a wage study released last month by the Kansas Department of Commerce.
The mid-range of pay in Saline County rose from $15.85 in 2017 to $17.32 an hour in 2018, elevating the county to 12th in Kansas, right behind Sedgwick County.
“We now rank ahead of McPherson, Riley, Geary, Reno, and Harvey counties. All have previously been viewed as having better-paying jobs than Salina/Saline County,” said Tim Rogers, executive director of the Salina Airport Authority.
The study is based on 800 standardized occupations nationwide, from CEOs to minimum wage positions, said Eric Brown, president and CEO of the Salina Area Chamber of Commerce.
“This large increase in the Saline County wage level is another sign that the local economy is on solid ground and providing quality employment opportunities for our residents,” said Mitch Robinson, executive director of the Salina Economic Development Organization.
“Wage growth like what occurred in Saline County has an impact not only in that county but on a regional basis,” Kansas Secretary of Commerce David Toland said. “We’re thrilled that Salina’s efforts are creating not just more jobs, but better-paying jobs. It means greater economic stability for families and communities as a whole.”
Median wages have been “stuck in the 15-dollar range for years,” the Chamber’s Brown said, adding that the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics has wages up nationally by 3.21 percent, as reported in July.
“It’s a sign of a strong economy when wages rise to that level,” Brown said. “Employers are valuing their workforce, and also, the workers have a little more potentially discretionary funds to reinvest in the local economy.”
A short supply of skilled workers played a role, he agreed, thanks in part to low unemployment (3.5 percent in July).
“When demand goes up for labor and the supply side is low, employers study their wage and benefit packages in order to remain competitive,” Brown said.
The higher median wage “shows that employers are doing a good job of taking care of their employees,” he said. “In addition to employers raising wage levels, they have been investing millions in plants, properties and locations. It will pay dividends for both the employers and the community.”
Low unemployment is a good thing, said Kent Buer, president and CEO of First Bank Kansas, and chairman of the Salina Airport Authority board.
“That means a lot of people are working,” he said. “It’s supply and demand. Let the market forces determine what businesses need to pay, and that’s what’s happening.”
More pay might just make workers less eager to leave. “Local people will be able to start their careers at a local plant or business and those wages will be similar to larger metro areas,” Brown said.
Another good number for the community is the Cost of Living Index, he said, placing Salina at roughly 17 percent below the national average.
More money in your pocket is a big help, said Larry Fief, president of The Bank of Tescott. “It just makes lives easier,” he said. “They can manage their budgets differently. The question is, will they save?”
As an employer, Fief said the bank compares wages to other similar business, along with other banks. “As wages go up, it improves that cycle; spend more, save more,” Fief said. “This (median wage rise) should be positive.”
It does take a bit longer to find employees, Buer said, because not as many are job hunting. “It’s not a bad thing. I also think it makes employees look at the overall benefits package,” he said. “I think it’s good for the market, and good for the employees.”
People in the community have been talking about the need for better-paying jobs, the airport authority’s Rogers said, and the wage survey shows they’re being delivered. “The number of quality and premium jobs have increased dramatically,” he said, adding that the nearly 6,000 total jobs associated with the Salina Airport Industrial Center average an annual wage of $28 per hour, $58,000 a year.
The airport industrial center numbers are from the February 2019 Salina Regional Airport and Airport Industrial Center Economic Impact Summary Report, by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs, Fort Hays State University. The report is based upon private and public data, Rogers said, and the economic impact model used was IMPLAN.
The Department of Commerce median wage report “does not reflect the new, premier jobs that 1 Vision (Aviation) is bringing to the Salina Airport (average $25 an hour),” he said. Rogers stated that he would expect that the 1 Vision jobs may push the county median wage upward.
“The number of employees 1 Vision plans to hire, and with the average wage rates they plan to pay, they could positively impact our standing as well,” said Mike Schrage, Salina city manager.
In the midst of a good year at Long McArthur Ford Lincoln at Salina, Derek Lee, general manager, has noticed people are buying more expensive vehicles. “In typical years, they will buy a lower trim level with less amenities, but this year, people are buying more of what they want,” he said.
As a major supplier of trucks, smack dab in the middle of Kansas farm country, Lee said the trade war struck some fear at Long Mac earlier in the year, but that dip in rural sales has not materialized.
“We’ve seen a really significant increase in business this year,” he said. “Our rural market is doing as well as ever. We thought about stocking less, but ended up needing to stock more. “The second quarter is where we get the first real indicator of what annual truck sales will be, and it was extraordinary.”
Hopes are high entering the fourth quarter. “That’s typically our best quarter and we are stocking for a major increase over last year,” Lee said.
As an employer, he said, hourly pay has gone up. “In a lot of roles, to get really good people, we have had to go up two to three dollars an hour (starting out),” Lee said.
The wage numbers are “incredibly encouraging,” said Schrage. “It’s an indicator of investment in the community, hopefully resulting in more disposable spending that will benefit citizens and businesses. It should also help the different city and county taxing entities’ bottom lines.”
A higher median wage could fill some worker voids in north-central Kansas, said Rob Exline, owner and CEO of Exline, Inc., 3256 E. Country Club. “Finding skilled workers remains a challenge for us. As an employer, a rising median wage could be viewed as a positive if Salina gets out and publicizes that fact. It might help bring workers to our area,” he said. Changes happen often, but there is no pressure.
“We have seen some evidence at our company, in certain areas, of the need to evaluate wages and make adjustments, but overall,” Exline said, “I don’t know if we’re feeling it too much; certainly not to a large degree. Being wage competitive is something we are constantly monitoring. There obviously must be some pressure, because this has been more of a topic of conversation than it normally is. I believe our wage structure is typically higher than the local median wage.”
The company’s primary function is providing manufacturing and maintenance service to natural gas compressor stations all over the United States.
If word spreads that Salina and Saline County have a higher median wage, he’s hopeful that a larger and better workforce will result. “It would provide a greater pool of workers for us to draw from,” Exline said. “It would appear to me it would help attract workers to our community if they could come to Salina and earn more money.”