From nearly half the U.S. economy in the 1950s, manufacturing has plummeted to just 9% of U.S. economic activity in 2016. Cheap labor and global markets provided an incentive for manufacturers to move their plants outside the U.S.
With high tech advances in manufacturing, that is turning around, particularly in South Carolina. Today, a robust $25 billion manufacturing industry accounts for 12% of state jobs and 20% of its wages. The average manufacturing job pays 35% above the median income for state residents. And it is growing.
Companies like Boeing, Mercedes, and most recently Volvo, and their first and second tier suppliers, continue to add manufacturing jobs to the Lowcountry, both high-paying engineering jobs and hourly employment for plant workers without university degrees. With support from the state and local economic development infrastructure, the future of manufacturing in South Carolina appears very bright.
The site selection firm The Boyd Company rates South Carolina as the least expensive of the contiguous 48 states for advanced manufacturing, about 12% lower than neighboring North Carolina. Good infrastructure, like the ports and rail, and low labor costs and taxes, have made the Palmetto State attractive for manufacturers.
Those involved in the field will celebrate the positive trends during Manufacturing Week, October 2-6 this year. The Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), the American Society for Quality, and the Lowcountry Graduate Center are partnering to present the Lowcountry Manufacturing and Quality Expo on October 3 and 4 at the Lowcountry Graduate Center. This event is timed to coincide with National Manufacturing Day, celebrated in 2017 on Friday, October 6.
Keynote speakers include Michael Balke, President and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Vans and Vincent Halma, President and CEO of Kion North America. Tickets are available at asqcharleston.org/lmqe2017. The expo will provide an opportunity for people in the field to learn from each other and discover best practices in the areas of manufacturing quality, logistics and training.
There are storm clouds on the manufacturing horizon, though. The state continues to struggle to provide the talent pool to this growing sector, forcing employers to locate elsewhere or hire from outside the state and move them into regions like the Lowcountry that are already bursting at the seams.
Efforts are being made locally to boost the supply of engineers, management, technicians and analysts, and production workers.
The Lowcountry Graduate Center offers a variety of project management and engineering management programs through the University of South Carolina and The Citadel.
Additionally, youth apprenticeship programs have been established in high schools that allow students to combine classroom work with paid on-the-job training in advanced manufacturing. During National Manufacturing Week, SME members visit schools and describe the opportunities in the modern American factory.
Dick Tiano, Chairman of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers in Charleston, says programs that target students and their parents are critical.
“It starts in high schools with educators and counselors helping students discover the opportunities that are out there for them,” he said. “It’s getting better, but we still don’t see enough of it.”
Tiano has heard first-hand the misconceptions people harbor about manufacturing – that it is dead, dirty and low-paying. He notes, “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”