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Why are people with college degrees leaving KC? Civic leaders look for answers

Kansas City business and civic leaders are looking to promote the region's engineering, architectural and life sciences industries as a way to help improve the city's economic fortunes.
Kansas City business and civic leaders are looking to promote the region's engineering, architectural and life sciences industries as a way to help improve the city's economic fortunes.

By most metrics, Kansas City is growing. Maybe not as fast as some cities, but it's happening.

But for some reason in 2016, more people with college degrees left Kansas City than came to it.

In 2015, 3,000 more people with bachelor's degrees moved to Kansas City than moved out.

In 2016, the most recent year migration statistics were available, that number flipped on its head: About 4,000 more people with bachelor's degrees moved out of Kansas City than moved in.

That 2016 net migration total ranks Kansas City 30 out of 31 cities it compares itself to.

"We will do better, I promise you that," said John Murphy, a partner with Kansas City law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon, who is also a co-chair of KC Rising, a local business community initiative aimed at improving Kansas City's economic growth.

Frank Lenk, director of research for the Mid-America Regional Council, cautions that a one-year shift in migration doesn't necessarily denote a trend.

A gentle interpretation could be a coincidence: A flux of baby boomers retiring in 2016 and decamping Kansas City for warmer climes, for example. A harsher interpretation is that there are more opportunities in other cities.

Lenk acknowledges that the change between 2015 and 2016 was a big one, and that it's worth watching.

"We don't know quite what it means," Lenk said. "At face value, it's a combination of there perhaps being more opportunities elsewhere."

KC Rising, which started in 2014, is holding its annual meeting on Tuesday at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art to discuss this last year of Kansas City's economic progress.

The results this year are mixed. KC Rising analyzes Kansas City's economic growth based in part on three key metrics: gross domestic products, number of quality jobs and median household income. Kansas City's position in all three categories, which is generally in the middle among 31 cities, dropped slightly from the year before.

One area of focus is promoting Kansas City's engineering, architectural and life sciences industries. KC Rising leaders have concluded that these areas are Kansas City's strongest employment sectors compared to 30 other cities that Kansas City compares itself to.

The numbers back up that conclusion. Kansas City ranks No. 7 among those 31 cities in total engineering and architectural employment. Local companies like Populous, Burns & McDonnell, HNTB and Black & Veatch solidify that distinction.

Kansas City ranks No. 8 in life sciences employment.

"You start by identifying your strengths," said Bill Gautreaux, managing partner at MLP Partners and co-chair of the KC Rising steering committee. "And then you double down."

The Kansas City region has burnished its reputation in animal health research and wants to do the same with human life sciences.

"We are already known as a global leader in animal health," said Wayne Cartner, president and chief executive of the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute. "We also have significant strength on the human side. We are really looking to link these together."

Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute this year is re-branding into BioNexus KC as part of its effort to promote human and animal medicine, clinical research and what it calls value-based health care.

Carter said an example of value-based health care in Kansas City was the development of software by Health Outcomes Sciences in Overland Park, which tracks a patient's kidneys during a coronary angioplasty procedure. The contrast dye used during the procedure can be toxic and lead to kidney complications, but Health Outcomes Sciences software can give doctors a better idea of how kidneys are performing.

Carter said the innovation, which local hospitals are starting to adopt, can lower the cost of health care by reducing complications from procedures.

"You drive better outcomes and save money at the same time," Carter said. "This is the type of ecosystem opportunity we are trying to drive for the Kansas City area."