Published in the Asheville Citizen-Times, May 16, 2022 - Fifty years ago, manufacturing was the undisputed employment king of Buncombe County, and pretty much the region.
Heavy hitters such as American Enka, Beacon Blankets in Swannanoa, Square D in West Asheville and the Gerber baby food plant in Arden employed tens of thousands of people, providing solid paychecks, a chance at homeownership and the possibility of sending kids off for college degrees.
As recently as 2000, 16,451 people worked in manufacturing jobs in Buncombe County, according to federal figures. But that number dwindled to 11,108 by 2014, as those big plants closed down one by one, affected as much by international trade and cheaper overseas goods as anything.
It's all part of a national trend. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes, "Despite being a leading driver of employment growth for decades, manufacturing has shed employment over the past 40 years, as the U.S. economy has shifted to service-providing industries."
In June 1979, American manufacturing employment reached an all-time high of 19.6 million, according to the BLS. By June 2019, that employment figure had dropped to 12.8 million, a 35% decline.
But locally, officials and manufacturers want to get this message out: Manufacturing is far from dying out in Buncombe or the region. In fact, it's enjoying a resurgence, and the new $650-million Pratt & Whitney plant in Arden, which should open in November, will only boost the area's status as a manufacturing hub — and possibly draw more companies here.
Federal stats show Buncombe County had just over 14,000 people employed in manufacturing in 2021. The Asheville Metropolitan Statistical Area (Buncombe, Haywood, Madison and Henderson counties) also had a strong manufacturing presence.
"Manufacturing remains among the top five employment sectors in the four-county Asheville Metro, with 21,800 jobs estimated in 2021 – a key driver of the Asheville area economy," Heidi Reiber, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce's senior research director, said via email, citing North Carolina Department of Commerce statistics.
As of the fourth quarter of 2019, almost 700 manufacturing outfits had operations in Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania Counties, according to Nathan Ramsey, director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board.
The Asheville metro area has about 199,100 non-farm workers, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. Here's how employment broke down by sector, as of March this year:
• Trade, transportation and utilities: 36,700.
• Education and health services: 37,300.
• Leisure and hospitality: 27,700.
• Government: 26,200.
• Retail: 26,000.
• Manufacturing: 22,400.
The Pratt & Whitney boost
The upcoming opening of the Pratt & Whitney aircraft component plant in southern Buncombe County late this year will only draw more attention to the sector. The $650 million plant, which will make jet engine fan blades, will employ about 800 people when it's fully staffed, with salaries averaging about $68,000 a year.
"Pratt & Whitney’s decision to locate in our region is one of the best arguments we can make to other firms that they can expand and/or locate here," Ramsey said. "Pratt & Whitney is investing over half a billion dollars in our region, and that commitment demonstrates larger projects can locate here."
Traditionally, because of our metro area's size and the scarcity of buildable, flat land, "Projects of this scale haven’t established a new site in Western North Carolina," Ramsey said.
As of 2021, the metro area population stood at 469,015, making it the seventh largest of North Carolina’s 15 metro areas. From 2010-20, the Asheville metro population grew by 10%, according to census and economic data, and by 2030, it's estimated to grow to 508,144.
Pratt & Whitney said earlier this year it expects to open in November. The company, a subsidiary of Raytheon Corp., is based in East Hartford, Connecticut, and has facilities in Texas, Georgia, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan and Maine, as well as overseas.
"Pratt & Whitney has found that local economies benefit from our presence not just in direct hiring, but the growth of suppliers in the region as well," said Cataldo Perrone, spokesman for the Asheville plant. "The talent drawn to an area like Asheville/Buncombe County naturally leads to entrepreneurial opportunities."
That can include manufacturing, administrative and other support roles, he said.
Biltmore Farms, the development company that sold the 100-acre site to Pratt & Whitney for $1, owns about 900 more acres adjoining the site in what it calls "Biltmore Park West." In a press release announcing Pratt & Whitney was coming, Biltmore Farms termed it "the first private investment for the new Biltmore Park West, a 1,000-acre master-planned development by Biltmore Farms LLC."
Not all of the remaining land is suitable for build out, and Biltmore Farms officials say they're only concentrating on helping Pratt & Whitney get open right now, not on recruiting other possible tenants.
But Biltmore Farms Vice President Ben Teague, who formerly worked in economic recruitment locally, says the manufacturing sector will play a key role in the area's livability and economic success. Asheville is a notoriously expensive place to live, with lower wages than other parts of the state, so higher paying jobs are vital.
"Building and maintaining a healthy manufacturing sector in a regional economy like ours – especially advanced manufacturing which requires higher skilled workforces – not only creates jobs, it provides a variety of career ladders for people to grow at every stage in their careers," Teague said.
That's "good for our community as a whole and the entire region," he added.
Clark Duncan, executive director of the Economic Development Coalition for Asheville-Buncombe County, said landing a big, Fortune 500 fish like Pratt & Whitney "certainly increases awareness of the Asheville region and validates the strength of the regional workforce, access to quality of schools, competitive cost of doing business and quality of place."
"But it’s important to note that our existing industry base is our greatest marketing tool in Buncombe County," Duncan said, citing existing manufacturers, such as GE Aviation, electrical supplier Eaton Corp. and auto parts maker BorgWarner. "It encourages their peer group around the world to investigate Western North Carolina."
Ramsey said he remains "bullish" on manufacturing in the region. He believes "if we develop the talent needed by businesses then our future is very bright. In many cases the top priorities of potential companies are talent, talent and talent."
Leaving the grocery world for manufacturing
Nima Gharibpour, 46, became part of that talent pool in September 2021, when he went to work for Linamar, a truck engine and parts maker in Arden. After 11 years with a grocery store chain, Gharibpour had advanced into management positions, but he wanted a chance to do better.
He'd heard about Linamar — mostly that they pay well and have good benefits, he said — so he applied. He got a job as a machine operator, and the company sent him to Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College for training.
"I've had a chance to improve myself in seven, eight months, and I'm getting an offer to a tech position," Gharibpour said.
With a wife and two kids, he's happy to be making more money and says his only regret is not getting into manufacturing sooner.
"Honestly, I would recommend it to people who are responsible about their job and not just about doing eight hours and going home," Gharibpour said.
An immigrant from Iran, Gharibpour said he's also proud to be spurring the American economy and cutting down on imported goods.
"I feel like I do something good for our country here," he said.
Like most plants in the area, Linamar is hiring. Indeed.com listed more than 30 positions as of May 12.
The facts about manufacturing
There's no doubt manufacturing is a major economic force in the region. Consider these statistics Reiber and Ramsey provided, gleaned from NC Commerce data and EMSI reports.
• Manufacturing remains among the top five employment sectors in the four-county Asheville Metro with 21,800 jobs estimated in 2021 – a key driver of the Asheville area economy.
• In 2021, the manufacturing sector made up 11% of overall 192,700 total nonfarm employment in the metro, and it was approximately 5% of North Carolina’s manufacturing employment.
• The sector expanded 2016-2021, adding 1,400 jobs, a 7% increase. This outpaced the state (down .5%) and the nation (down .07%) in the same time period.
• In the Asheville Metro, manufacturing’s average weekly wage for the third quarter of 2021 was $1,105 a week, or $57,460 annually. That's 17% greater than the overall metro average weekly wage of $941.
• Growth in the local manufacturing sector over the past five years was led by these top five industries: breweries; motor vehicle transmission and power train parts manufacturing; surgical appliance and supplies manufacturing; nonwoven fabric mills; and current-carrying wiring device manufacturing.
• In 2021, the metro area had 32% more employment in manufacturing compared to the national average, a statistic that points to concentration of skill.
• The economic impact from manufacturing in the Asheville metro is $3.1 billion yearly with annual wages of $1.6 billion.
"Manufacturing takes a back seat to none in our region — no other sector has a greater economic impact," Ramsey said. "Although tourism is a strength in the region, the wages in that sector are far less than manufacturing. Manufacturing jobs have increased in the region over the past seven years, and it continues to be a competitive strength for us."
Ramsey concedes that the mega-manufacturers of yore are gone, but he's adamant that we have plenty of smaller firms carrying the load today.
"While we may not have a local manufacturer with 8,000 jobs like American Enka used to have in WNC, we have many manufacturers with 500-plus employees, and several with over 1,000 local employees," he said.
Local manufacturers weigh in
The workforce is one of the main reasons manufacturing operations stay in the area, companies say.
Loren Finnerty, site leader for GE Aviation's Asheville operation, said the company has over 450 employees at its two facilities at its Asheville site off Sweeten Creek Road.
"Our employee base in Asheville has grown by around 200 employees over the last 10 years and continues to get bigger," Finnerty said. "Just in the last six months, we’ve hired an additional 30 people and have a variety of full-time roles that we are targeting to fill including engineers, machinists and technicians."
In 2018, the company received $1.6 million in incentives from Asheville and Buncombe County in exchange for investing $105 million in its facilities and adding 131 new jobs.
Like Pratt & Whitney, GE Aviation also makes aircraft engines, and the local plant manufactures high-tech ceramic matrix composites that help jet engines burn fuel more efficiently. Finnerty said plane manufacturers and airlines are shifting to more fuel-efficient engines.
"If the industry continues its upward trend, we expect to grow in the next five years by another 75-plus people," she said.
As far as "why Asheville," Finnerty noted the company has been here since 1949, although it was known as "Oerlikon" back then.
"Asheville is one of the most desirable locations in our business, and it has a lot to do with the region, the amenities that the local community offers, the beauty of the mountains, and proximity to other larger cities," Finnerty said. "With all the attributes that Asheville provides, we have had great success attracting talent."
At BorgWarner, a global auto parts manufacturer with a plant in Arden, Human Resources Director Kathy Hensley said the company has 600 employees here and expects continued growth. The company, which makes turbochargers, fans, and fan drives in Arden, has a foundation here grounded in "a strong, stable workforce."
BorgWarner is investing to develop technologies for electric vehicles, a huge growth area. The company has been pleased with the business climate here and efforts to maintain "a sustainable talent pipeline," which is a challenge for all employers, Hensley said.
While the quality of life here is "a major draw for many of our employees," as Hensley notes, Asheville's notoriously expensive housing market poses its own challenges.
"The explosive growth of the housing market has placed a tremendous strain on the availability of affordable middle-income housing," Hensley said. "We have employees who elected to live in South Carolina and Tennessee due to the cost of housing."
A company like Pratt & Whitney coming to this area can boost the attention the area receives, and Hensley said it's vital that includes attention to "robust" efforts at workforce development to support new and existing manufacturers.
"We would love to see a new project like this bring an intensive focus on attracting new workers and building a robust pipeline for future careers," Hensley said. "However, this investment also adds to the talent demand."
A-B Tech, other community colleges, NC Works (the state employment agency) and nonprofits have said previously they will collaborate on job support for Pratt & Whitney and other local employers.
Pratt & Whitney is partnering with Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College to build a customized training program for hourly workers in the manufacturing area who lack experience. The training will cover basic skills needed for a career in manufacturing.
A-B Tech is working with several other local community colleges on that program, to help Pratt & Whitney "grow our talent pool throughout WNC," the company said. Also, the Asheville-based community college will build a $10 million training center near the new Pratt & Whitney plant, with about half the space dedicated to training P&W workers.
Good pay one of the draws
These and other manufacturing positions are the kinds of jobs communities want, economic leaders say.
Ramsey, citing data from Economic Modeling Specialists Intl., or EMSI, said their data shows manufacturing is a "strength for our region, as we have more manufacturing jobs here than similar-sized metros."
The metro area has 21,899 manufacturing jobs, with an average wage of $70,106 annually. That's below the national average for manufacturing jobs in comparably-sized areas ($96,642), but it's still considerably higher than the median wage for the metro of $46,300 (as of May 2020), according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Ramsey has talked quite a bit about all the job openings in the area, but he thinks Pratt & Whitney and other firms, along with partners such as A-B Tech, can meet the challenge. In fact, the concept of "clustering" of manufacturing concerns "means that Pratt & Whitney locating in Western North Carolina can also be positive for other manufacturing firms," Ramsey said, because, "Talent can move between firms, and that is an asset to attracting more talent."
"For most firms, they recruit locally and nationally," Ramsey said. "I’m sure P&W will be no different. Many of the jobs will be sourced locally as talent below certain pay levels tends not to move just for that job."
He puts it this way: "Are you going to move to our region for a $60,000 per year job when those jobs are available in your home community?"
Our area grows mostly by "in-migration," or people moving here, rather than an increase in births over deaths, and a growing population is a positive for all employers, Ramsey said.
"Many communities focus on attracting people, as that is their local challenge," he added. "That isn’t a problem here."
High cost of living a challenge, though
Finnerty, with GE Aviation, said the mountain region has a good business climate and leaders are focused on the workforce, but she also cited the high cost of living as a challenge. Still, GE Aviation hasn't "experienced significant trouble to find workers for most types of roles."
"There are a few specialized skill sets that we are actively seeking, for example, experienced machinists and maintenance team members," Finnerty said.
The quality of life here, including all the restaurants, breweries and art galleries, is a strong selling point for some employees, including herself, Finnerty said. But Asheville is an expensive place to live.
"We are seeing some challenges with the relatively high cost of housing close to Asheville, increasing traffic for those commuting, and a shortage of childcare in the area," Finnerty said.
Krystal Dredge, marketing director at Woodfin's AvL Technologies, which makes antennas and other communications equipment for the satellite television industry, said their company has had a similar experience. While AvL is committed to paying living wages, she said some employees have moved away from Asheville and accept a longer commute.
"Over the past few years, AvL has lost some employees who found work closer to where they live and thus quit commuting, and some who took remote-only positions," Dredge said.
The biggest challenge AvL, which employs 250 workers, has faced is finding land, she noted. And while the company pays well, offering wages and benefits similar to "much larger companies," Dredge said, AvL has struggled to "reach Ashevillians for Asheville jobs.
"When we post an opening, we get flooded with resumes from interested candidates living all over the U.S. who apply because they want to live in Asheville," Dredge said.
Pratt & Whitney’s investment "will attract additional manufacturers and skilled employees," Dredge said.