Contrary to what you may have thought, manufacturing is not dead in North Carolina, but it is quite different from our old perceptions of textile and furniture mills and tobacco factories. Some were surprised when The Emerging Issues Forum announced this year’s theme: “Manufacturing Works.” We’ve learned over the past 28 years this group is on the leading edge of public policy issues and this year was no exception. Those attending learned that manufacturing is alive and growing in our state.
North Carolina was hit hard by the recession, losing almost 31 percent of our manufacturing jobs between 1992 and 2010. But during that same time the number of manufacturing establishments increased by 34 percent to some 23,308. We rank fourth in manufacturing production in the U.S., employing some 616,800. But these firms are different. They require less space, are less labor-intensive, employ more technology, automation, newer machineries and smarter logistics.
We heard success stories from entrepreneurs like Gart Davis, co-founder of Spoonflower, a Durham on-demand textile manufacturer who uses computers and professional printers to manufacture small quantity custom textiles. Employing the Internet, they market across the world in English, letting Google translate their web site content into the language of the customer while Pay Pal calculates the appropriate pricing, based on the customer’s currency, and pays Spoonflower in dollars. Davis bragged that they have spent next to nothing on marketing, have few employees and are thriving.
If North Carolina is going to lead in this new age there are challenges that must be addressed. Even today, with a 9.2 percent unemployment rate, jobs are going unfilled because our workers don’t have the skills needed. Apprenticeship programs need to be started, using a partnership of companies, high schools and community colleges who can train and retrain skilled workers like welders, printers, technicians and others; jobs paying $60,000 or more a year. Our 58 community colleges must be better funded to conduct this training. These new companies are also going to need more streamlined regulations that eliminate unnecessary barriers, excessive permitting and tax policies that encourage them to grow their businesses. And we cannot build tomorrows “makers” without more readily available capital.
Again we hear the call for improving our infrastructure. Better roads and transportation networks are needed to import and export raw materials and finished products. An improvement in high-speed broadband is essential for a business cycle that demands faster communications, greater networking and faster turnarounds. Mostly, we need to “rebrand” manufacturing, to change our thinking from smokestacks, pollution and assembly lines to today’s new manufacturing reality. And we must have more collaboration between government, business, educators and our citizens.
The benefits are obvious. While fewer will be employed the average wage will be higher. Studies show that 70 percent of research and development and 90 percent of all patents stem from manufacturing. For every dollar spent in the manufacturing sector there is a ripple effect of $1.35 elsewhere in the economy. It is a positive sign that Governor McCrory has created a new position of Deputy Secretary of Commerce for Manufacturing.
Thanks Emerging Issues Forum. We applaud today’s new “makers” and welcome them to come and grow here. They will help make us a better state.
— Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of “NC SPIN,” a weekly statewide television discussion of North Carolina issues airing Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on WRAL-TV and at 8:30 a.m. on WRAZ-TV FOX50. He can be reached at www.ncspin.com.