GARNER — For the second time in two weeks, a major North Carolina political figure spoke in Garner about promoting advanced manufacturing.
With signs that North Carolina’s manufacturing sector is on the mend, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan announced Tuesday the formation of a state manufacturing committee to deliver advice and policy ideas to her office.
Hagan made the announcement at the Pergo laminated flooring plant in Garner after touring the facility with future members of the committee, Pergo executives, Garner town leaders and representatives from Wake Tech, including Wake Tech president Stephen Scott.
“The best way to grow manufacturing or any of our key sectors is by talking to people on the ground,” said Hagan, a Democrat from Greensboro.
The committee will include 15 to 20 members, including four co-chairs: Joe Dudley, cofounder of Dudley Beauty Products in Greensboro; Mitch Pulwer, president of Concord-based Celgard; Kelley Platt, head of Thomas Built Buses in High Point; and Maureen Little, associate vice president of customized training for the North Carolina Community College System.
The committee will focus both on helping traditional industries – textiles, furniture and tobacco – thrive in the 21st century as well as facilitating growth in newer industries such as pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.
Garner plans to target those newer industries as they search for a new tenant for the ConAgra site.
“Any time that there’s any initiatives for advanced manufacturing, training opportunities and ways that they can grow their market internationally, that will help us,” said Garner economic development director Tony Beasley.
Jobs will return
Although North Carolina is still the fourth largest manufacturing state in the country in terms of GDP, Hagan said it has been hit harder than most over the past two decades. The state lost more than 390,000 manufacturing jobs between 1990 and 2010. Today, more than 19 percent of North Carolina’s GDP comes from manufacturing, which accounts for 11 percent of the state’s jobs.
But Hagan said North Carolina is well positioned to expand its manufacturing base in the coming years, citing the 7,200 manufacturing jobs the state has added over the past two years.
“The coordination between the communities and industry is the key,” she said. “Any time we can get local community leaders to work closely with our community colleges, and obviously closely with business, that’s what’s going to create jobs.”
The state has struggled to create jobs during the economic recovery. North Carolina’s unemployment rate crept up to 8.9 percent in July, the third highest rate in the country. That number rises above 15 percent when underemployed or disenfranchised workers are counted, also lagging most of the country.
Though some economists such as MIT’s Paul Osterman describe the problem as greatly exaggerated, much has been made in recent years of a shortage of skilled workers in advanced manufacturing despite large-scale unemployment.
Scott, Wake Tech’s president, spoke Tuesday about his school’s 17-year relationship with Pergo. He said the college would work to get students the skills needed in manufacturing.
“The college provides a manufacturing certification program, and that’s our basic tool kit,” Scott said. “We’re looking to expand more into our automated manufacturing processes.”
Osterman’s research found 15 percent of firms cited shortage of highly skilled labor as a major obstacle to success, and that two-thirds said there’s been no major increase in skill levels required for workers in the last five years.
Hagan’s message to the state about the importance of manufacturing – particularly advanced manufacturing – is one that other politicians and state officials have been emphasizing in recent months. Sharon Decker, the state Secretary of Commerce, has been promoting a similar vision, and did so at an event in Garner less than two weeks earlier.
Both describe the trend of manufacturing jobs returning from overseas, but with a high-tech twist.
“We will see a resurgence in manufacturing,” Hagan said. “A lot of the mechanized facilities and equipment they have here at Pergo is being done by hand in China. We can do better quality, but we have to have the skill-sets, computer-based skill sets we are training our people on.”