Written by Jennifer Fitzgerald
If Western North Carolina is to be economically successful in the future, the key will be in finding the right talent-and talent that is not only trained for, but committed to that future.
There are more than 10,000 manufacturers in the state of North Carolina—well over 3,000 of them located in Western North Carolina, where manufacturing accounts for $5.7 billion annually, or 21% of our area’s overall economic output—each making a different product and employing a unique workforce. Each business also has its own unique story regarding how it fits into the larger manufacturing picture.
One such story perhaps emblematic of our area is Henderson County’s SELEE Corporation, which has longstanding roots in Western North Carolina and plans on continuing its legacy in the mountains. Founded in 1974 in St. Louis, Missouri, as a part of Consolidated Aluminum, the Hendersonville headquarters opened in 1979. In addition to that headquarters, they also have manufacturing facilities in Xiaogan, China, and Gilberts, Illinois. SELEE employs 140 in Hendersonville and 220 worldwide.
SELEE pioneered the use of ceramic foam in metal filtration technology. Ceramic foam is basically foam that has been impregnated with a ceramic slurry material, baked or fired, and the finished product is ceramic foam. SELEE Corporation invented the first ceramic foam filter. It is used for molten metal filtration, allowing customers to “clean” their metal and reduce their scrap.
“Our filters are used in metals for the aerospace industry, auto industry, beverage can industry, consumer products industry, and building products industry,” says SELEE Corporation President Watt Jackson. “Along with ceramic foam filters, we supply a variety of metal filtration equipment and we are now making 3D printed filters here in Hendersonville.”
Like any successful company, SELEE has evolved over the years to ensure continued growth.
“We continue to invest in new technology and methods to better serve the growing needs of our customers,” continues Jackson. “Of course, expansion to China was a big step for us—but it’s such a strong industrial market, so it makes business-sense for us to be there and grow there. China’s growing population will continue to demand products that require metal filtration.
“We are and have always been the industry leader, so maintaining that position can be challenging, especially when there are more competitors now. So, our goal is to continue to be the innovator that everyone is chasing.”
Having just been named MountainTrue’s Green Business of the Year for Western North Carolina, SELEE has, according to Jackson, a goal of being 100% sustainable by 2025—meaning zero waste to the local land field.
“We fit the WNC business model in that we help our customers with their quality, reduce their impact on the environment, and we make the safest ceramic filter in the industry—for which we have received numerous awards as well. And we are part of the N.C. Department of Labor Carolina Star Program, having recently been recognized and visited by Cherie Berry, N.C. Commissioner of Labor.”
Jackson adds that they choose to keep their headquarters in Western North Carolina because it’s their home and they have a great stable workforce here. SELEE Corporation’s marketing theme is “NEXT,” so, they will continue to invest in Research & Development to stay ahead of competitors in markets they serve. They will always challenge themselves to keep thinking of that NEXT “big thing” that can serve their customers.
A Look Back
Steve Woody has seen many changes in the manufacturing scene in Western North Carolina. As a lifelong resident of Asheville and CEO and Director of Avadim Health, Inc. (profiled in the April 2017 issue of this magazine), he is not sure if we will ever return to the days when textiles and furniture dominated our region. He does, however, see technology companies and MedTech companies like Avadim that are efficient in their manufacturing operations and need high skilled talent which are fueling a healthy and growing manufacturing segment in all parts of North Carolina. But before we take a look at the current state of manufacturing in Western North Carolina, let’s take a look back.
The earliest manufacturers to be found in North Carolina were a few textile mills prior to the Civil War. The real beginning of the industry did not occur until the 1880s when mill villages were built to house employees and form communities.
This growth was part of the “cotton mill campaign” that equated the idea of southern progress with industrialization. “This was aided by the expansive growth of the railroads, which allowed for easy transport of cotton and manufactured goods,” says Rebecca Williams, co-founder of Serpent Child Productions, which is currently working on Blanket Town, a documentary film about the rise and fall of the Beacon Blanket Mill in Swannanoa, its influence on the people who worked there, and its national and global context. (See sidebar, p. 40) “In 1879,” Williams explains, “the railroad was completed that linked eastern and western North Carolina. Construction of textile mills and towns often followed the railway tracks.
“One of the historians who speaks in the film talks about how in North Carolina, by the turn of the century everyone in the South wanted to hop on the mill-building bandwagon. There was this new technology that was changing not only how things were made but also how everyone lived, and they wanted a piece of it. He compared it to the beginnings of the internet or dot.com boom. Often these mills were started with the financial backing of middle class professionals—bankers, lawyers, merchants—and were set up in small towns.”
Williams says the other thing that contributed to the expansion of the textile industry in the South was the rise of organized labor in New England. Established mills, like Beacon, were experiencing labor unrest and strikes. By moving to the South, they could avoid that. Also, if a mill used southern cotton, they were closer to the raw materials and they didn’t have to pay people as much as they did in New England.
The Owen family bought Beacon Manufacturing Company in 1904 and started production in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1905. They started making blankets in Swannanoa in 1925, while maintaining the plant in New England. They closed out the New Bedford plant and moved all their operations to Swannanoa by the mid-‘30s.
Anne Chesky Smith, director of the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center, shares that by 1923, North Carolina had overtaken Massachusetts as the largest textile producer in the United States due to the state’s mild climate, cheap labor, raw materials, and plentiful electricity. After the Depression, almost 25% of North Carolinians were unemployed. Textile mills were an attractive option for many as they offered steady wages, mill housing, and credit at the company store.
“I think part of the importance of a manufacturing base, like textiles, is how it creates a kind of economic eco-system,” says Williams. “It can support smaller businesses, like shuttle manufacturers, that were located here to make the shuttles for the mill’s looms. And of course, you can look at Swannanoa’s history and see how Beacon and its mill villages (which were typical in southern mill towns) gave rise to grocery stores, clothing stores, restaurants, etc. that served the thousands of people who worked there. When the industry closes down, those smaller businesses can’t survive, and often the small towns that sprung up around them, dry up.
“For Swannanoa, Beacon also supplied steady employment to generations of workers, with the chance to move up through the ranks of the mill, without a college degree or even a high school education. I’ve spoken to quite a few people who dropped out of school as early as the ninth grade, worked at Beacon, got their GED, and ended up in supervisory positions where they said they made ‘good money’—enough to buy a home, a car, and put their kids through college. So, you could learn new skills on the job and be rewarded for your hard work. And I don’t think those kinds of opportunities exist anymore for folks without higher education. With the rise of the ‘gig economy’ the chances of steady employment, where you work for one employer for 20-30 years, with benefits, is also a thing of the past.”
Textiles employment in North Carolina reached a high point in 1973, apparel in 1984, and furniture in 1988. Between these peak years and 1991, these three industry groups together lost over 112,000 jobs. By 1974, trade agreements were being negotiated to try to stop the flow of textile imports into the United States. But still, between 1974-84 textile trade imports to the United States tripled. It was a slow and steady decline for several decades.
Many believe the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) contributed to these subsequent job losses since 1991. The rise of the WTO (World Trade Organization), the gradual phase-out of the multi-fiber agreement, which had put limits on the amounts of exports developing countries could export to developing countries, the passage of NAFTA, the rise of mega-retailers like Walmart that demanded low prices, the high cost of modernizing old factories—all contributed to the loss of textile jobs in our state. United States clothing brands and textile manufacturers left North Carolina for China, India, Bangladesh, Mexico, and Central America, where they could make the same goods with cheaper labor.
“Basically, we had NAFTA and globalization hit in the late ‘80s at the same time,” says Avadim’s Woody. “In our MedTech sector we had almost 15 firms here—within a few years we were down to two or three. For me, personally, we were trying to compete with China-produced devices, but ultimately, like most companies, we had no choice but to have our products produced over in China. None of us had a choice—either go overseas or to Mexico or lose market share. To make it worse, the Chinese government was willing to subsidize products at levels that were putting our domestic firms out of business. It was no big deal for them to subsidize for two or three years which we, as domestic suppliers, could not withstand and they knew that very well. Our region was particularly at risk because two of the labor- and environmental-intense industries were textiles and furniture. So obviously, that double hit had a drastic impact on our region.”
Beacon actually stayed very competitive through the 1990s and was quite successful in a declining industry. But when China was admitted to the WTO in 2000 as a developing country, American textiles really couldn’t compete. Tedd Smith and Steve Hutcherson of Beacon Linens—the firm they started a few years ago after securing the rights to the Beacon name (see our profile in the January 2017 issue)—agree that NAFTA started the decline of manufacturing in Western North Carolina, but the WTO dealt the killer punch. “Had the playing field been level,” says Smith, “USA manufacturers could have competed favorably. That was not the case.”
Hutcherson elaborates upon what American manufacturers were up against, describing what he experienced at the time.
“I had opened a cut and sew facility in Greenville, South Carolina, making sheets and pillowcases. We spent almost $3 million on state-of-the-art automated machinery. With a little over 100 workers we were making about 10,000 sheet sets per week… and making a profit. [But] in one day the quotas were gone, and so were the profits. I had to close it down and sold the equipment for 10 cents on the dollar to Pakistani companies. To make it worse, while we were working, we were paying duty on imported fabric of 11.3%; we only paid 6.8% on complete sheet sets, packaged and ready to sell. [In other words] there was a 4.5% disadvantage to buying fabric and creating jobs here in the USA. What a broken system.”
The Current State
Fast-forward to present day, where the manufacturing sector is healthy once again and growing in all parts of North Carolina.
“We have seen a steady increase in the number of jobs and the number of manufacturing companies calling North Carolina home each year,” says North Carolina Commerce Secretary Anthony Copeland. “In the past two years, the following Western North Carolina manufacturing companies have announced expansions—Baxter Healthcare, GE Aviation, Greenworks Tools, Haakon Industries, Icone Technologies, and numerous other companies that represent products in aviation and agribusiness to pharmaceutical and automotive.”
Copeland cites the number one reason for consistent growth in manufacturing in Western North Carolina as well as the state: the availability of a talented and trainable workforce. Various state, regional, and local programs and partnerships, including work-based learning opportunities and hands-on training, are succeeding in preparing North Carolinians for the manufacturing jobs of today and the future.
“Programs like the partnership between GE Aviation and A-B Tech to provide customized training and the Furniture Academy in Catawba County that was created by various local furniture makers in response to their employment needs, are doing an excellent job training workers,” says Copeland. “We’ve got six Certified Career Pathways programs in manufacturing that are exposing middle and high school students to the variety of job opportunities in manufacturing and what curriculum to follow to help them prepare for those jobs.”
Training, Training, and More Training
Our region is fortunate to have the resource of A-B Tech’s Economic & Workforce Development Department and Advanced Manufacturing Center. A primary focus of the Department (within the Economic & Workforce Development Division) is to work directly with local manufacturers to provide employee training.
“The main way we do this is local administration of the state’s Customized Training Program,” says Director Kevin Kimrey. “The Customized Training Program is funded annually by the North Carolina Legislature, and exists to provide funding and resources to train workers in several industry sectors, including manufacturing. We currently have 10 active training projects (three-year duration for each) with GE Aviation, Avadim Health, BorgWarner Turbo, Eaton, Linamar, New Belgium Brewing, PECO, Nexus Technologies, Reich, and White Labs.
“But we also do training for practically every local manufacturer—Advanced Superabrasives, Arcadia Beverage, AvL Technologies, Baldor, Jacob Holm, MB Haynes, Medical Action Industries, Emerson, National Wiper Alliance, PLI, TE Connectivity, Kearfott, Thermo Fisher, Tutco, for example. And we do training for emerging manufacturers such as No Evil Foods, Riverbend Malt House, Wicked Weed, French Broad Chocolate Factory, Hemp Magik, and will be working with the new Canadian manufacturer that just announced that it is coming to Asheville—Haakon.”
Over the last five years, through the Customized Training Program there has been training for 4,071 local employees, serving 113 different companies, and expending $1.2 million in state funds to do the training.
The Advanced Manufacturing Center is a huge part of the operation, and all types of training is held there—job-specific, safety, continuous improvement and leadership, core industry skills, business support, and bio-manufacturing.
“But we also ‘take the show on the road’ quite a bit and do a lot of training at manufacturing sites,” says Kimrey. “The Advanced Manufacturing Center will soon expand both in space and training scope. Our center will house a full-scale machine shop, automation/mechatronics space (including robotics), industrial maintenance, electro-mechanical assembly, sanitary welding (to serve the food and beverage manufacturing industry), and metal fabrication, all with state-of-the-art equipment.”
The Division of Economic & Workforce Development/Continuing Education provides short-term training, usually in six months or less, including one-day courses to allow someone to add skills or learn new interests easily.
“We offer classes in all areas of our local economy including health care, manufacturing, technology, hospitality, education, human services, and emergency services, to name a few,” says Vice President of Economic and Workforce Development/Continuing Education Shelley White. “Many of our programs lead to nationally or state aligned certifications; our programs do not lead to traditional degrees or diplomas—although some of our programs in advanced manufacturing and emergency services allow students to earn credit towards a degree from their successful completion of non-credit course.”
Wanted: Skill Sets & Degrees
In 2019, what are manufacturers looking for when hiring?
According to Kimrey, certain skill sets are obviously needed for specific job functions, but many skill sets are universal—soft skills, things like good communication skills, teamwork, the ability to avert or resolve conflicts, and basic technical skills or basic computer skills. Engineering degrees are needed everywhere, and not just four-year degrees. Two-year engineering degrees are needed, as well.
“Probably the biggest thing that has changed is technology and automation—manufacturing is increasingly advancing its processes,” says Kimrey. “It is taking fewer people to do a lot of manufacturing, but it is requiring more advanced skills and knowledge, setup knowledge, troubleshooting skills. I tell everyone that it would be a good idea to get some level of college education—four-year degrees aren’t always necessary, but community college education, either degrees or short-term training, are becoming increasingly necessary.”
Different than in the past when there was a need for a large number of employees for each manufacturer, now the region is seeing high skilled employers with a need for fewer employees.
“The upside is the jobs are higher skilled and demand a higher pay, but there are fewer jobs than before,” explains Josh Carpenter, regional industry manager for the Western Region for the Economic Developmental Partnership of North Carolina (EDPNC). “What is appearing more often than not are smaller firms with high levels of automation. Our strongest manufacturing sectors are in advanced manufacturing in general. This includes automotive, aerospace, electronics, medical devices, and a few others. In terms of weakest, I would say we need to improve in food production. I think we could be stronger with food production with improvements in logistics infrastructure.”
Carpenter shares that since 2010, the number of aerospace and automotive jobs have grown—aerospace jobs have increased 68% and automotive jobs have increased by 16%, with a location quotient of 1.12 in aerospace jobs and 1.55 in automotive jobs. This means in terms of those types of jobs we are higher than the national average and are differentiated in that regard.
Recruitment (Pt. 1)
A key responsibility of bringing new manufacturers to the region falls to local economic development organizations. Carpenter’s organization, EDPNC, has a recruitment function along with a business development function that is geared specifically for lead generation and project management. In addition, Carolina West and the Mountain West Partnership are both a consortium of county level economic developers working together to promote the recruitment and retention of industry. Remember that estimated 3,000 regional manufacturers mentioned the beginning of this article? If you factor in several additional counties adjacent to our 18-county Western North Carolina, the number ticks even higher. Observes Carpenter, “Based on Dun and Bradstreet data, there are 3,635 manufacturers in the Western and Northwestern Prosperity Zones. This is data that our research team was able to find.” (View a map of those zones on p.43)
The Mountain Area Workforce Development Board, part of the Land of Sky Regional Council, is another that oversees a single, comprehensive strategic plan for a four-county area by identifying workforce development issues and the needs of local businesses.
Nathan Ramsey, director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board, states that manufacturing employment has increased about 4,000 jobs since the Great Recession. With an average wage exceeding $53,000 per year (plus benefits), the direct wages paid to manufacturing employees in our region is over $1.2 billion annually.
“There are about 1,000 manufacturing job openings right now in the region, and manufacturing employers, like employers in all sectors, are struggling to meet their talent needs in a tight labor market,” says Ramsey. “Our region has had the lowest unemployment rate in North Carolina for 42 consecutive months. The Asheville MSA has the second lowest unemployment rate at 2.5% of any MSA in the Southeast (behind the Charlottesville, Virginia, MSA and Crestview-Fort Walton Beach-Destin, Florida, MSA, which are both at 2.4%).”
The Mountain Area Workforce Development Board has helped create, with manufacturing employer leadership and partnerships with educators, economic developers, and workforce partners, an Advanced Manufacturing Career Pathway (MountainAreaCareers.org), which has been certified by the NCWorks Commission. The board provides funding for training for career pathways in Advanced Manufacturing to eligible individuals pursuant to the Workforce Innovation & Opportunity Act (WIOA). Advanced Manufacturing is one of the board’s five target sectors, along with Healthcare, Hospitality & Tourism, Skilled Trades/Construction, and Tech/IT.
“The Advanced Manufacturing sector has been one of the leading sectors driving job growth in our local economy,” says Ramsey. “It is also one of our region’s higher paying sectors, along with Healthcare. Meeting the workforce needs for this sector is critical so our local manufacturing firms can thrive.”
The Economic Development Coalition (EDC) for Asheville-Buncombe County is a partnership of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, Buncombe County, and the City of Asheville, along with over 85 investors in the AVL 5×5 Strategy for Job Creation. “5×5” is their five-year plan focused on five high-wage industry sectors that will further diversify the regional economy and leverage the historical strengths of the Asheville workforce—Advanced Manufacturing, Science and Technology, Healthcare, Entrepreneurship, and Talent Development.
“The EDC partners with all manufacturers in Buncombe County—from local startups like French Broad Chocolate to multinationals like Borg Warner Turbo,” says Clark S. Duncan, executive director and senior vice president of the EDC. “Our programs focus on expansion, workforce development, and sustainability initiatives that build a strong foundation for continued growth and high-quality job creation.
“Long-standing partnerships with Asheville and Buncombe County schools bring both teachers and students into manufacturing facilities on a regular basis to better understand the diverse career opportunities for our next generation. These kind of engagements are incredibly important to building a pipeline of next-generation talent for the Asheville Metro economy.
“To that end, we recently launched NEXT AVL—a customized mentorship program in partnership with UNC-Asheville and Western Carolina University focused on retaining our rising workforce among the region’s 184,000 college and university students. Additionally, our E3 Sustainability Council will soon mark its 10-year anniversary and continues to bring together cross-functional representatives of the Buncombe County manufacturing community for best practices in workforce development, logistics, process, and energy efficiency.”
Duncan notes a trend among local manufacturers continuing to invest, expand, and diversify their holdings in Asheville, based on the strength of the workforce and ease of recruiting talent and young families to the region. This is surprising, he says, in the face of such a tight labor market nationally and reassuring that local employers have the confidence to grow.
“Avadim Technologies, for example, was courted by several states but instead committed in 2016 to grow their headquarters by over 550 new jobs in Asheville based on the talent of our residents, the strength of local educational partnerships, and the amenities of the community.”
Recruitment (Pt. 2)
In Henderson County, manufacturing headcount has steadily increased to approximately 5,300, with average wages around $53,000 annually. Brittany Brady, president of the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development (HCPED), proposes that as BMW came to Upstate South Carolina, Henderson County has enjoyed the success of automotive suppliers.
“We like to think of ourselves as the Automotive Supplier Capital of the World,” she notes. “From that, we have seen sectors within the industry grow and spin off including polymers, metals, and even non-wovens. Food and Beverage continues to grow and diversify.”
HCPED has an active recruitment strategy, meeting with companies, consultants, and attending trade shows and meetings, and working closely with Carolina West, as well as the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.
“Our organization is just as focused, if not more focused on the retention of industry as we are on recruitment,” says Brady. “There are 133 manufacturers in Henderson County and we continually conduct meetings to take the temperature on any opportunities or threats that they may be experiencing. It is our desire as an office to focus on removing any hurdles so that they can focus on creating their product. We have also facilitated neighborhood meetings and other industry specific events to help build connections within the manufacturing community. We are proud of our collaborations with Blue Ridge Community College and Henderson County Public Schools that are building a workforce pipeline.
“It is fascinating to observe local companies dream into the future on how they need to invest for decades to come. Specifically in regards to automation, companies in our region are on the cutting edge with R&D for what will be. These changes have steadily taken place. How companies invest in machinery and equipment has changed with staffing in mind. Manufacturing has become cleaner year over year. The sector as a whole has become a more desirable industry where people work smarter, environments are more high tech, and the culture is something exciting to be a part of.”
Brady describes Henderson County as having one foot in manufacturing and one foot in the mountains—the perfect work/life balance. Henderson County specifically collaborates to remove any hurdles for industries setting up.
“We have a history of manufacturing here, which translates into a skilled workforce and training resources, and tried and true methods. We can’t deny we have a tremendous quality of place. With a positive in-migration that outpaces the state, we have something special and we are proud of it.”
Recruitment (Pt. 3)
In Yancey County the Economic Development Commission works closely with the local community college system, Mayland Community College, and with the local public school system to help develop programs that can train individuals for the skills required in today’s manufacturing jobs.
“We have a robust incentive policy as well, but in today’s business climate, I daresay incentives, though important, are less important than whether we can provide the skilled labor required by companies seeking to grow and expand,” says Jamie L. McMahan, Yancey County Planning and Economic Development director. “I have the privilege of serving as the first chair of a new regional partnership to work toward this goal in the Yancey, Mitchell, and Avery Counties called the Tri-County Business Advisory Council, which brings together leaders from local industry, education, and economic development sectors to work to develop a plan to ensure that we continue to develop programs that will keep our workforce trained for whatever the future of manufacturing in Western North Carolina may hold.
“In Yancey County we have seen a common denominator with industries who remained in our county through the downturn in the manufacturing economy, and with newer industries that we have recruited in more recent years. That common denominator is the ability to train our workforce to understand the technological changes in manufacturing. In my opinion, the industries that have grown here have less to do with any one particular sector of business either returning or emerging, but rather more to do with companies of all sorts seeking out a workforce that can meet the technical skills that advanced manufacturing now requires.”
McMahan cites technology as having a significant change in local manufacturing: “This might be a bit of a tongue-in-cheek response, but I would say that the changes in manufacturing over the past 10 years, five years, and 12 months are technology, technology, technology. If you consider the rapidity with which technology now evolves, in the last 12 months there has probably been as much innovation as there was in the previous decade. That is why educating our people to adapt as quickly is important. STEM education, coupled with knowledge of mechatronics, robotics, and computer aided design is imperative in today’s business world.”
Recruitment (Pt. 4)
As a staffing provider in the region, Express Employment Professionals partners with hundreds of employers in Western North Carolina throughout the year, and a large percentage of their clients operate in the manufacturing space. Their team of recruiters identifies, screens, and onboards talent for these companies in entry- and mid-level roles. Over the past 18 months Express contractors completed 791 assignments, and they have onboarded over 412 people into permanent and career positions. The average entry level manufacturing wage for the companies they support has grown 18.2% in the past two years.
“Manufacturing is strong in Western North Carolina,” says Meredith Campbell, co-owner and chief joy facilitator of Express Employment Professionals. “Most of our clients have experienced significant growth in 2018 and anticipate continued growth in 2019. A common challenge we hear
is identifying and retaining the right local people to join their team. A strong partnership with local colleges and training programs has given some of our manufacturing clients a leg up when recruiting talent and cultivating their workforce. We’re excited about the leadership and emphasis on workforce development happening in our community
from organizations such as Mountain Area Workforce Development, Economic Development Coalition, Western North Carolina Human
Resource Association, and strong community colleges such as A-B Tech Community College, Blue Ridge Community College, and Haywood Community College.”
The Express Employment Professionals team of recruiters has seen an increase in the demand for entry level and experienced machine operators. The loudest call comes from manufacturers on the search for maintenance technicians. This is a position that often requires mechanical and electrical aptitude, as well as experience in order to keep machines running correctly, quickly, and safely.
“I don’t think one can ever say a region has too many jobs,” says Campbell. “A healthy economy offers a variety of jobs that require a variety of experiences, training, and education. It’s common knowledge that Western North Carolina’s average wages are lower than the state of North Carolina’s average wages. Combined with a continued increase in the cost of housing, employees and employers have to make intentional choices at acceptable wages to attract and retain talent. There’s no doubt that the mountains have an impact on workforce attraction, but they don’t put food on the table or pay medical bills. A focus on higher skilled jobs is a win for all, but employers and our community must not forget the great value entry-level and lower-skilled positions have. Wages need to continue to rise for these positions as well.”
At recruiting and staffing agency Aerotek, Garrett Greene, Business Development manager-Engineering and Manufacturing, has recently seen a surplus of light industrial roles in our area. He shares that as automation continues to evolve the manufacturing industry, we will soon see a rise in technical roles such as programmers, set-up technicians, and automation control technicians.
“With $6.2 trillion in annual revenue, business is booming across the manufacturing industry today, fueled by a strong economy and steady demand for products,” says Greene. “However, one of the most significant challenges facing manufacturers today is the industry’s historically low unemployment rate, which hit 3.8% in July 2018. To be competitive, companies are raising pay scales. Rising demand and short supply in skilled trades means that manufacturers have to offer competitive wages. With the unemployment rate being so low, there are several populations that are crucial to maintaining manufacturing’s ongoing production capacity—women, military veterans, and the future generation of workers.”
Manufacturers are facing the toughest recruitment environment in decades. With roughly 21,300 workers, the manufacturing industry employs more people in Asheville’s metropolitan area than it has at any point in the past decade, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows.
“Manufacturing growth in other parts of North Carolina and the bordering states has also continued to further opportunity for growth in our area,” says Greene. “For example, new manufacturing sites for companies, such as Boeing or ZF Lemforder in South Carolina, can create a positive ripple effect and help attract suppliers to set up shop in WNC as they will position themselves for delivery within a reasonable shipping radius. Many of the larger manufactures prefer their top suppliers to be close in proximity to help mitigate risk and monitor quality procedures.
“In addition to manufacturing companies in the Automotive, Aerospace/Defense, and Med Device industries, Western North Carolina is continuing to see a rise in breweries and outdoor recreation products. Breweries are the second fastest growing industry for job opportunities in Western North Carolina with a 16% increase over last year.”
So… Why Western North Carolina?
The obvious question becomes, why do manufacturers choose to locate in our region? Perhaps one obvious answer is the quality of life that the area offers, leading to a positive tool for recruitment and retention of employees. In addition, the location within the Southeast is attractive to manufacturers.
“We are within a one-day trucking drive of 80% of the U.S. population,” says the EDPNC’s Carpenter. “Within one day’s truck drive or 300 miles of WNC, there are over 6,000 auto and aerospace manufacturing firms.”
There is also, he adds, a lower cost of labor and doing business: “This is due to a lot of factors, but North Carolina has a history of skilled workforce development that helps to reduce the cost of workforce training for companies, and in turn they have a lower cost of doing business.”
And, of course, there are the partnerships throughout the area that work in tandem to bring good things together in the manufacturing segment.
“The partnership of A-B Tech continues to be a differentiator for Asheville and Buncombe County businesses,” says Duncan, of the EDC. “As North Carolina’s first community college, Buncombe County is positioned to offer new and existing industry world-class customized training programs. A great example is the Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast that was launched by A-B Tech to support New Belgium Brewing, but today supplies graduates to every craft brewery in Western North Carolina.”
There you have it—a look at the state of manufacturing in Western North Carolina and its importance to our region. While the value of the segment might be overlooked by some, make no mistake—it is a critical part of the local economy.
“It is sometimes overlooked how important manufacturing is to the WNC economy,” says Edward Lopez, professor of economics at Western Carolina University. (See sidebar, p. 47, on the university’s North Carolina Data Dashboard economic activity project.) “Fewer manufacturing jobs is what gets headlines. But as the data show, with far fewer workers, WNC manufacturers have been producing a lot more value. Manufacturing in WNC is globally competitive, and it’s tempting to think that manufacturing jobs simply go where labor costs are the lowest. But these are also increasingly high-skilled jobs, and companies want to locate near a high-skilled workforce. And the data show that companies are willing to match those high skills with high pay. This is a big part of the overall economic trend in WNC, as elsewhere.”
Avadim’s Woody sums it up well when as he says, “To be successful in the future, we are focused on finding the right talent that wakes up committed to our vision and will protect the culture. That’s why we stayed in WNC because of the work ethic and the quality of people here—they will assure we remain innovative, which will be the key to our future success.”
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