Point of View

How manufacturing is leading the economic comeback in NC

October 11, 2013 

I grew up in Gaston County in the shadows of the textile mills. Around the family dinner table our parents often told us, “You can do anything you want, but don’t come back and work in the textile mill!” They saw manufacturing as a declining industry with little opportunity.

North Carolina’s manufacturing industry has changed drastically since the textile mill days of the 1960s. Today’s manufacturing is no longer about the monotonous assembly line. It’s about automation, technology, creativity and teamwork. It’s about a workplace where young, bright and highly educated workers can be just about anything they want.

Changing the conversation so young people know about the wide array of career opportunities in manufacturing will be one of my top professional and personal goals as Secretary of Commerce. Last week, Gov. Pat McCrory and I celebrated National Manufacturing Day with local employees, entrepreneurs and long-time business owners with a series of announcements that will bring 370 jobs and $100 million in new investment to North Carolina.

More manufacturing job announcements and investments are on the way. North Carolina’s manufacturing resurgence is building on a foundation most other states have yet to achieve.

Consider that:

• North Carolina is the fourth-largest manufacturing state in the country based on an economic output that surpassed $80 billion in 2012.

• Manufacturing’s contribution to the state’s 2012 gross domestic product was 19.4 percent.

• In 2012, approximately 430,000 North Carolina workers, or about 1 in 10, were employed in manufacturing.

Most of those North Carolinians worked in the food, chemical, fabricated metal, computer and electronics sectors, as well as fields related to furniture. Nearly $24 billion of 2011’s economic output was produced by chemical manufacturing alone. Another $20 billion came from food, beverage and tobacco products, more than any state but California.

North Carolina’s high level of manufacturing production is a prime reason the sector provides opportunities for good jobs with attractive pay and benefits. In 2012, the average annual manufacturing wage in North Carolina was $53,337. That’s 32 percent higher than the private, nonmanufacturing average wage of $40,425. In our rural counties, the manufacturing wage averaged $42,297, a full 30 percent more than the private, nonmanufacturing average wage.

Manufacturers are getting a good return in their investment in the North Carolina labor force. According to Dr. Mike Walden, an economist at N.C. State University, the average North Carolina worker is roughly 36 percent more productive than the average national worker. Even better, that level of productivity is increasing. Put another way, Walden says that a generation ago, it took three workers to equal the output of a single manufacturing worker today.

This high level of productivity, coupled with the education support from the state’s community college system, is a major reason North Carolina is emerging as a hub for advanced manufacturing. That fact emerged at the 2013 Paris Air Show, where GE Aviation announced plans to invest $195 million over the next five years and create 242 jobs at its four facilities in North Carolina. The company will produce engine components made of advanced ceramic matrix composite materials.

Our strong community college system offers customized training programs to suit the needs of local manufacturers in almost every industry sector. If we don’t have people with the exact skills needed to work at a new facility, you better believe we can create a customized training program that will meet any company’s needs. Our universities actively partner with manufacturers with research and applied programs such as the Industrial Extension Service.

The military is also playing a role in the state’s growing footprint in the national advanced manufacturing arena. Each year, an estimated 21,000 highly trained men and women complete their military service and join the state’s workforce. They bring specialized skills in diverse areas such as aerospace and aviation, engineering, communications, information technology, finance and accounting, security, and research and development.

It’s easy to understand why the most respected names in manufacturing are investing once again in North Carolina. Manufacturing has always been the backbone of state’s our economy, and I’m convinced the sector’s best days are still ahead.

Sharon Decker is North Carolina’s Commerce secretary.

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