Johnson County’s reputation as an economic superstar is overrated

06/25/2014 1:04 PM

06/25/2014 6:58 PM

Johnson County is an economic superpower. Or so the story has gone for many years in the metropolitan area.

The county’s ability to attract jobs indeed looks good when stacked next to, say, Jackson County, which hasn’t had as much success as its suburban counterpart.

But Johnson County’s star status dims when you take a deeper look at some interesting — and surprising — statistics that measure growth in jobs and wages.

Here are new and historical figures for Johnson County, other large area counties and the nation, supplied in annual Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages reports released by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2013, Johnson County ranked a woeful 307th of the nation’s 335 largest counties in the percentage change in average weekly wages. They actually fell 2.1 percent last year, while the national figure was flat.

From 2003 through 2013, Johnson County never ranked in the top 10 percent in percentage of wage growth among the 330 or so largest counties over that span. The county fell into the bottom half in six of those 11 years.

Johnson County ranked 90th of the 335 counties in the percentage change of employment in 2013. Overall, it added 2.5 percent more jobs, outperforming the national average of 1.8 percent.

From 2003 through 2013, Johnson County ranked in the top 10 percent of large counties for percentage of employment gains for only one year, though it did finish in the top half in 10 of the 11 years.

The consistency of how the county of 560,000 residents has added jobs is something proponents like to cite regarding its economic vitality.

But even that point is overstated, to a degree.

Johnson County employment grew almost 11 percent from 2003 through 2013. That’s not bad, because it includes the recent recession. Plus, the national employment number grew by just 5 percent.

Yet the number of added jobs grew by the same overall 11 percent in Wyandotte County. Meanwhile, Clay County came in with a gain of 6 percent.

Johnson County fares much better stacked up next to Jackson County, which lost 4 percent of its total number of jobs from 2003 through 2013.

When it comes to wages, Johnson County’s record is far less impressive, especially given its reputation for being the home of high-earning residents.

Average weekly pay for employees in the county was $1,022 in 2013, just a tad higher than the national average of $1,000.

Johnson County’s weekly wages still were the highest when compared to Jackson ($1,003), Wyandotte ($899), and Clay ($890) counties, the other local jurisdictions measured in the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages reports.

Yet Johnson County’s overall growth in wages from 2003 to 2013 was 31 percent — barely ahead of the national average growth of 30 percent.

Wages in Jackson County went up 29 percent in that same period.

The essential takeaway: Johnson County is at a crossroads. It needs to be more successful in attracting new jobs, especially the higher-paying kind.

Leaders in civic, business and political circles especially ought to pay more attention to a new Mid-America Regional Council report on how communities can attract new employers.

Meanwhile, the rest of the metropolitan area and the state of Kansas need to hope Johnson County can achieve higher growth in jobs and wages.

Recent national figures have shown that the health of the Kansas City region’s economy trails too many of its peers. The fact that Kansas’ economy also is behind the national curve increases the urgency to create an even more vibrant Johnson County.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Twitter @YaelTAbouhalkah.

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