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Area is job leader Charleston region tops nation in new manufacturing work

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Area is job leader Charleston region tops nation in new manufacturing work

Workers install systems in a 787 mid-fuselage section at the Boeing campus in North Charleston. The aerospace giant is one reason the region has posted strong job numbers in the manufacturing sector. The auto sector is another.

Manufacturing jobs grew by a greater percentage in Charleston over the course of 2010 and 2011 than any other large metropolitan area in the country.

That’s according to a report, “Locating American Manufacturing: Trends in the Geography of Production,” published by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

While the national average manufacturing job growth rate during that two-year period was 2.7 percent and the South’s average was just 2.2 percent, the Charleston-North Charleston-Summerville metro area boasted a 14.4 percent increase.

Asked what was driving the recent manufacturing boom in the Lowcountry, study co-author Timothy Krueger’s first answer was, perhaps surprisingly, not Boeing.

“I think it has a lot to do with the auto industry,” said Krueger, a research assistant at Policy Matters Ohio, a Cleveland think tank that collaborated on the report released earlier this month.

He noted other automotive-dependent metro areas also did well during that period thanks to the government bailout that boosted not only the so-called “Big Three” but also other vehicle makers and their supply chains.

Charleston Regional Development Alliance CEO David Ginn acknowledged the contributions of local automotive vehicle manufacturers, but he suggested a broader range of contributing industries.

“When you look back over the past couple of years, we ‘ve been fortunate as a region to see several competitive expansions and new manufacturing businesses locate in the market — companies from Boeing making airplanes to DuPont making Kevlar to Cummins making automotive parts,” Ginn said Thursday.

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The Charleston metro area also did much better than its peer population areas in the 2000-2010 decade. Whereas the United States lost almost a third of its manufacturing jobs over that period, Charleston only lost 10.1 percent.

Charleston has fared better than the rest of the South, where manufacturing jobs had been shifting but which saw that shift come to a “halt” in the first decade of the 21st century, according to the May 9 study.

“Maybe the attraction of low wages and no unions isn’t quite that attractive in the long run,” Krueger said.

Krueger also noted Charleston’s unusual balance of so-called very high-tech manufacturing jobs, like aerospace or pharmaceutical, and moderately high-tech manufacturing jobs, such as shipbuilding and machinery. Those categories typically “geographically repel one another,” he said.

“But you guys, you have decent levels of both,” he said, referring to the 11 percent very high-tech and 24.6 percent moderately high-tech.

Charleston’s manufacturing wages are also above the national average in the 100 largest metro areas: more than $100,000 annually for very high-tech and $65,779 overall. But overall wages rank just 65th.

Ginn attributed the generally lower pay in the Charleston region to the idea that people have accepted lower wages here because it’s “a historic, naturally beautiful and vibrant place.” But, he said, that’s beginning to change and has to change.

“We’ve got to keep doing the hard work within a very smart strategy and over time we will close some of those gaps,” he said.

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