Sun Belt hopes for rebirth in manufacturing to boost economy, exports

At an aviation hangar on the campus of a community college in Greensboro, N.C., three students crouched over a jet engine, discussing its deconstructed parts.

One of them, Keith Brown., a 28-year-old military veteran, returned to school to study aviation systems technology because he “always had a thing for airplanes.”

For Brown, the effort at Guilford Technical Community College is personal. But for officials in North Carolina, Mississippi and other states, it’s part of a renewed focus on changing manufacturing’s rusted reputation – and boosting exports and the jobs that come with them.

From 2011 to 2012, exports of civilian aircraft, engines and parts from North Carolina jumped 14 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. In 2012, that sector represented nearly 4 percent of North Carolina’s exports, and it’s expected to continue growing, company officials said.

Even so, there’s still much to be done: While the industry is ready to take off, some executives say the skilled workforce in the state remains small.

“We’re facing a shrinking labor pool of qualified mechanics and we’re facing difficulties finding enough qualified engineers,” said Leonard Kazmerski, the vice president of marketing and business development at TIMCO Aviation Services, a plane maintenance company in Greensboro.

TIMCO repairs planes from the United Kingdom, Iceland and Morocco and develops new plane interiors for companies in Turkey, Malaysia and Japan. B/E Aerospace, Honda Aircraft Co. and Triumph Actuation Systems – aviation or parts manufacturing companies – also call North Carolina home.“In the past, the domestic market was so strong that export sales were too complicated while there are other buyers just down the street,” said Jean Davis, the director of international trade at the North Carolina Department of Commerce. She noted, however, that the vast majority of consumers live outside the U.S. “In the last five to 10 years that whole equation has changed,” she said.Some state government officials have pinned their hopes on the aviation industry to cover holes left by disappearing bedrock industries, including textiles, furniture manufacturing and tobacco, which have been devastated by globalization in recent decades. Furniture imports leapt from $9 billion nationally in 1998 to $27 billion in 2006, flooding the domestic market and drowning some American companies. At the same time, U.S. employment in the textile industry plummeted, declining by more than 65 percent, according to data collected by Duke University.

Another Sun Belt state, Mississippi, also is undergoing a manufacturing transformation.

In the 10 years since Nissan North America Inc. began building cars in Canton, Miss., Toyota Motor North America Inc., PACCAR Inc. and GreenTech Automotive Inc. have joined the market in the state by adding assembly plants.

Suppliers also are eyeing Mississippi. In September, Yokohama Tire Corp. and German auto parts maker Feuer Powertrain GmbH & Co. KG broke ground on new plants. Nissan is building its own supplier park at its Canton plant.

Overall, growth in this industry created 2,000 jobs in the last year in the state, said William “Skip” Scaggs, the director of the Mississippi Development Authority’s existing industry and business division.

The surge in manufacturing might up the ante for education, not only at the community college or trade-school level but also at the university level. Companies will be looking for skilled workers, as well as people who know how the auto and other industries operate.

“That means we have to adjust our higher education to be thinking about that,” said Roger King, the director of Mississippi State University’s Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems. “Do you offer automotive engineering classes or more robotic classes because so many things are automated out at these assembly lines?”

In North Carolina, Penny Whiteheart, the executive vice president of the Piedmont Triad Partnership, a state- and privately funded economic development agency, said the state had started emphasizing aviation two years ago after examining the region’s assets against the backdrop of economic conditions across the globe. She wanted to determine where North Carolina could best invest its time and resources for a global market.

“It was aviation,” Whiteheart decided.

North Carolina’s community college aviation programs are just getting off the ground. At Guilford Tech, the administration invested millions in a new aviation campus near the Piedmont Triad International Airport. The school is also a member of the National Aviation Consortium, which received more than $1 million in grant money from the U.S. Department of Labor to close the skills gap in the aviation industry.

“Anyone that has graduated this program doesn’t seem to have a problem getting a job,” student Keith Brown said.

At Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, machining coordinator Todd Bishop said the mechanical engineering technology program had shrunk five years ago to a small night program for just a certificate, “but now we’re back to running day and night.”

One of the main struggles is to convince students and their parents that advanced manufacturing, which includes aviation production and maintenance, has a bright future in North Carolina. The shadow of shuttered factories hangs heavily in memory.

“The immediate reaction is, ‘I don’t want to be a part of that,’ ” said Gary Green, Forsyth’s president. “But it’s a different environment now. . . . It’s based on science, math – technological skills that were not there in the past.”

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune