Boeing’s S.C. ascent teaches lasting lessons

  • Posted: Tuesday, May 14, 2013 12:01 a.m.

In Seattle on Monday, Boeing officially confirmed that 1,500 information-technology positions in the Puget Sound region will be eliminated or transferred over the next three years.

That’s the latest bad Boeing news for Greater Seattle as the company continues to implement dramatic changes in its global production and logistics models. In mid-April, Boeing announced it would relocate much of its engineering work force. That followed a March announcement that the company is laying off up to 800 assembly line workers.

But in North Charleston last Friday, Gov. Nikki Haley signed legislation affirming our state’s $120 million infrastructure assistance package, and Boeing confirmed its $1.1 billion Phase 2 expansion projects. This will add 2,000 Boeing positions in Greater Charleston, including information-technology and engineering jobs. During the ceremony on Boeing’s swank delivery center’s balcony, Boeing executives hinted and teased and darn near promised that the company has even bigger plans for the Palmetto State.

So, in a couple of years, Boeing’s Greater Charleston work- force should be at least 8,000 strong — and growing.

Boeing’s senior local executive Jack Jones declared, “It’s an unbelievably euphoric time for Boeing and its Dreamliner program.”

Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell said Boeing began as an “economic game-changer for South Carolina and it’s now becoming a life-changer.”

Probably the best Boeing news is the company’s first quarter earnings report. Those bedeviling Dreamliner 787 battery problems had turned most Wall Street analysts cautious. But Boeing’s quarterly earnings were 24 percent higher than a year ago and fully eclipsed Wall Street’s expectations. Boeing’s stock price has increased by about 25 per cent just since January.

Earnings tend to validate a company’s strategic initiatives. Clearly, right now Boeing’s are working nicely, and South Carolina is very much a part of this picture. From a standing start four years ago, Boeing has built a world-class manufacturing facility on North Charleston swampland and is producing its 787 Dreamliner jets at a growing rate. The state and its 6,000-plus workers are measuring up, passing the tests of quality and productivity.

And for those union folks in Seattle who arrogantly argue, “Why the hell South Carolina?” the answer is, “Why the hell not South Carolina?”

Boeing South Carolina is an enterprise forged by an ambitious job-hungry state willing to market itself on market terms, and a global corporate giant looking to do new things new ways. It’s been public policy and measured taxpayer subsidy intersecting productively with big company strategies. And so far, it’s been very much a win-win operation. That next-phase tease might relate to many Boeing initiatives — the future generations of the 777 and the 737, research and development, information technology, or maybe weaponry. As South Carolina contemplates its prospects, the spin-off economy of having a jumbo jet manufacturing plant in your neighborhood becomes reality. Boeing’s suppliers and service vendors soon enough will find their ways to the Lowcountry. Just last week, Charleston Regional Alliance folks were part of a South Carolina group in Seattle smartly marketing our state as a fast-growing aerospace industry hub.

The world sure has changed since 1910, when Bill Boeing converted old Heath’s shipyard on the Duwamish River into an airplane factory. Dynamic realities of costs and production qualities in a global marketplace have overtaken a hubristic assumption among Seattle unions that their workers possess the exclusive Boeing franchise.

In 2013, Seattle is not the only qualified jumbo jet manufacturing center — but then neither is North Charleston. Last week, at the Future of Flight center, at Everett’s Paine Field, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced “the state’s first comprehensive aerospace strategy.”

The term “first” is curious given that Washington State has been in the aerospace business for more than 100 years. Back in 2008, Inslee’s predecessor, Gov. Christine Gregoire, visited the picket lines of striking Boeing machinists.

Gov. Inslee’s said his strategy would include “a specific game plan to win the Boeing 777X.” Reportedly his initiatives will focus on “the foundation of workforce education and transportation infrastructure.”

S.C. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, has been the Legislature’s point man from the beginning of the Boeing deals in 2008, and he gladly embraces the nickname “Senator Boeing.” As for Gov. Inslee’s new strategies, Leatherman is dismissive: “It’s late, short on details and he doesn’t commit to financing whatever he’s planning. It just doesn’t sound that serious.”

But Gov. Inslee understands that it’s game-on for Boeing’s future in his state. At play is a competition welcomed and fostered by Boeing’s revised strategic tactics. It should be good for Boeing’s earnings, South Carolina’s economic development — and presumably Seattle’s mindset about Boeing’s needs and expectations.

There’s a cautionary message in considering the splendid Boeing South Carolina story from the point of view of our friends in Greater Seattle. The company is in business to make quality aircraft, to provide world-class services and to make a profit.

And Boeing has options about where it sets up shop.



Ron Brinson, a North Charleston City Councilman, is a former associate editor of this newspaper. He can be reached at rbrin1013@gmail.com.

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