Oneita mural

This mural in downtown Andrews serves as a silent reminder how important the now-shuttered Oneita Knitting Mills was to the area. The factory and its headquarters employed more than 1,000 workers in town before it closed in the 1990s. The mural was painted on the back of Oneita's factory sales outlet, which is now an insurance office. Wade Spees/Staff

ANDREWS — The history of this town’s economy is enshrined in a fading mural, right off the main intersection downtown.

Workers push big bales of cotton and move long strands to be spun into yarn and knit into fabric. Seamstresses sit side-by-side at sewing machines, stitching together garments. In an artistic flourish, finished T-shirts float above, dyed blue, green and yellow.

But a glimpse of the town’s future whirs away a few miles down the highway. Inside the expanding SafeRack factory, workers set laser-cut pipes together, and a robotic arm follows behind, welding them together to make safety equipment.

At full capacity, this plant will have four of those arms running 16 hours a day, says Rob Honeycutt, CEO of SixAxis, the company that owns it. He figures that each one can do the work of maybe 10 people.

"The idea is for them to be welding all the time," Honeycutt says as he walks across the factory floor.

The split between this town's economic history and its future strikes at a divide in the way Americans think about manufacturing.

The shuttered T-shirt factory in Andrews, which closed in the 1990s under pressure from foreign competition, marks the concerns about global trade that helped propel President Donald Trump to the White House. But it's the forces at play on the SafeRack floor that are having a more profound impact on American manufacturing, economists say, as automation and technology have taken far more jobs.

That’s because factories have become far more efficient, and they need less and less human help to make things. American manufacturers are churning out more goods than ever, even though they employ millions fewer people.

That trend holds true in South Carolina, which is in the midst of a manufacturing renaissance: Since 2000, factory output in the Palmetto State has grown at about the same rate as the rest of the country, rising 38 percent through 2015.

So have manufacturers' cutbacks: The state lost almost 100,000 manufacturing jobs over the same time period, a 30 percent decline.

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SC manufacturing

This graph shows how South Carolina's manufacturing output (solid blue) and employment (solid red) have diverged, using the year 2000 as an index. The dotted lines show how manufacturing in the U.S. has changed. (Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis)

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The fate of those jobs dominated Trump’s campaign for the presidency, and they have been central to his first month in the White House.

"Jobs is one of the primary reasons I'm standing here today as your president," Trump said Friday on a visit to Boeing Co.'s North Charleston factory. Later, he added, "We want products made by our workers, in our factories, stamped with those four magnificent words: 'Made in the USA.'"

His hope is to attract more factories like SafeRack, which makes staircases and raised platforms stamped with those words. Trump walked past a few of them on his Boeing plant tour.

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Made in the USA

A gate made at SafeRack's Andrews factory is "manufactured with pride in the USA." Growing the U.S.'s manufacturing sector is a key goal for President Donald Trump, who has laid the blame for declining production jobs at the feet of foreign trade. Economists, however, say it's increasing efficiency at factories like SafeRack's that have changed industry. Wade Spees/Staff

But his candidacy and his first weeks in office have largely focused on factories like the long-closed textile mill in Andrews. In his inaugural address, he painted a dark picture of the American economy — of the "rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation" — as he laid the blame at the feet of U.S. manufacturers moving overseas.

"That’s this," said Frank McClary, the mayor of Andrews in western Georgetown County, about an hour north of Charleston. He was standing outside the rusted gates of Oneita Knitting Mills, the long-shuttered T-shirt giant that once employed more than 1,000 people in town.

Oneita’s corporate headquarters were in the town as it became one of the nation’s biggest T-shirt manufacturers with a network of factories around the world. It never got to be as big as Fruit of the Loom or Hanes, but it was in the conversation. It memorialized its role in the community with the mural downtown, on the side of its old outlet store.

When the plant closed in 1996 and the company succumbed to bankruptcy a few years later, it was a painful blow. Nearby factories making nails and baling wire also closed, and residents — including the mayor — acknowledge that it hasn’t rebounded since. 

"It was devastation to Andrews," said Joan Morris, 79, a lifelong resident who worked in Oneita’s offices for a few years after high school. "It has just been kind of dwindling down more and more and more."

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Mayor McClary at Oneita

Andrews Mayor Frank McClary stands outside the shuttered Oneita Knitting Mills factory a few blocks from downtown. The company was once one of America's biggest T-shirt manufacturers, and the mayor says the town never rebounded from its closure in the 1990s. Wade Spees/Staff

Overseas competition usually gets the blame for scenes like these, and the sharp displacement of trade was certainly pronounced in places like Andrews.

South Carolina's economy was one of the most affected by decreasing tariffs between the U.S. and Mexico, according to a study published last fall. The textile mills and furniture factories that the Carolinas depended on lost protections under the North American Free Trade Agreement, though many were already on the move.

Decades later, the president’s vows to renegotiate that agreement helped get him to Washington, even as economists warn that the U.S. could suffer if trade restrictions tighten and consumers face higher costs.

But even as foreign trade captures the attention of voters and politicians, researchers say their focus misses the bigger trend — that automation has taken many more manufacturing jobs. That’s how factories can make more things with fewer people.

A widely circulated Ball State University study, for instance, estimates that nearly nine in 10 manufacturing jobs lost between 2000 and 2010 went away because factories became more efficient. It's the remainder that went overseas.

"It can be a lot of little innovations that together make a big difference," said Michael Hicks, the Ball State economist who put forward that estimate.

Consider the Tupperware factory in Hemingway, half an hour north of Andrews.

It was once the biggest employer in Williamsburg County — about 1,200 workers making most of the products the company sold in the U.S.

It's no longer the largest employer, but it still makes most of America’s Tupperware containers — about 60 percent in all. The rest that are made overseas pass through Hemingway at some point, too, said Keith Haggerty, a vice president overseeing operations across the Americas.

It does so with only about 300 employees, Haggerty said. Most of them work filling orders in the attached distribution center.

Workers used to manually start the machines, open them up and pick up every bowl in the batch. Now, machines melt plastic into molds on their own, and robotic arms grab each finished container, dropping them onto conveyor belts over and over — 24 hours a day, five days a week.

After workers put the molds in place, they only step in to run quality tests every few hours and fix machines if they break down.

This year, Haggerty says, the factory will mold 6 million pounds of plastic, double its output in 2005. Its payroll, meantime, has mostly been “holding steady” over the last decade, Haggerty says.

"We’ve been adding on, not a huge amount," he said. "Ten or 15 here or there."

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Workers move pipes

SafeRack employees Chris Lewis, left, and Michael Gaskins move a cart loaded with pipes across the factory floor. CEO Rob Honeycutt says that when the factory's expansion is finished, the layout will cut out the need to move pieces around. Wade Spees/Staff

The image of rusted factories like the Oneita mill obscures the fact that towns like Andrews still make things.

If they didn’t, Honeycutt’s SixAxis wouldn’t exist: The company makes safety equipment for factory workers and software for manufacturers’ salespeople.

"In little towns like Andrews all over the country, you got to see what they were doing — who was surviving and who was thriving," Honeycutt said of sales trips he took for the company. He made note of who was pushing to get ahead. "They were just reinvesting in all this automation that will ultimately make them competitive."

His company has invested heavily in technology, too — from the sales software it developed in-house to the robotic welders that help fill orders.

SixAxis probably wouldn’t exist without it, Honeycutt says, and it certainly wouldn’t have grown as quickly. It wouldn’t ship orders as fast, and it wouldn’t fill them as precisely.

And it wouldn’t be expanding. It’s building an addition the size of its original factory, and it’s planning to hire 100 people — even though those workers’ paychecks will take up a relatively small slice of the revenue the company brings in.

That’s part of the divide Jim Moore now sees across the border in Williamsburg County.

When he started his career in Georgia and Kentucky, the executive director of the county economic development board used to count on a simple formula: A big investment would bring lots of work.

A $40 million project, say: That’d be a lock for 100 or 200 jobs — maybe even 300.

Now? A hundred people might find work.

"In a nutshell, that’s what automation has done," Moore said. "Companies are coming and putting their money in South Carolina, but there’s just not as many jobs to have."

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Downtown Andrews

Traffic passes through the main intersection in downtown Andrews, at the junction of two highways about an hour outside Charleston. "With 521 and 41, we get a lot of traffic. We just have to give them a reason to stop," says Andrews Mayor Frank McClary. Wade Spees/Staff

As automation changes the nature of work, Trump’s rhetoric appears to have won him support in places where jobs are threatened by technology.

Places with lots of jobs that could be eventually handled by a computer program or a robot saw their votes swing to the right, according to an analysis by Jed Kolko, chief economist at the job site Indeed.

And in South Carolina, lots of places fit that bill.

They include Andrews. The town sits in red Georgetown County, but half an hour inland from the beach communities on Ocean Highway, the town better resembles Williamsburg County.

The county line runs along the edge of Andrews’ small downtown, and like the area on the other side, the town is a blue pocket in a state awash in red. That didn’t change in November, but the broad support Democrats enjoy here did narrow.

The shift is emblematic of changes elsewhere in the state, as red counties from the Pee Dee through the Upstate dug in, and blue counties wavered. (In urban areas like Charleston, Greenville and Richland counties, voters moved slightly to the left.)

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Few places in the U.S. are immune from the technological changes sweeping through the workplace, but South Carolina is especially prone.

Rank every state by how many of its jobs could theoretically be automated, Kolko says, and it would be in the top third.

That means many workers here are performing tasks that follow a standard pattern, one that a software program or a machine could replicate. So it’s not just factory workers at risk, but telemarketers and tax preparers, too.

"The next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas," former President Barack Obama said in his farewell address last month. "It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete."

Those sorts of jobs are spread across the state, but by Kolko’s estimation, rural areas are especially likely to depend on routine work. They also saw the biggest shifts in November.

That was true in deep red counties and blue ones. Some had high unemployment, but in others, joblessness was low.

To Kolko, that suggests that the vein of economic anxiety Trump’s candidacy tapped into wasn’t focused on the economy as it is today, one that boasts low joblessness, falling poverty and improving pay.

It was focused, he argues, on the economy as it might work years from now.

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Atlatl software

Rob Honeycutt demonstrates an app designed by Atlatl Software, a Charleston-based startup he founded. The iPad app lets salespeople design custom factory equipment and generate engineering designs and quotes. Honeycutt and his manufacturing firm, SixAxis, have invested heavily in automation. Wade Spees/Staff

Estimates vary on how much work is routine enough to be automated, but even the most conservative guesses represent tens of millions of jobs.

One conservative guess, from a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development last year, put the number at 9 percent.

A more troubling prediction, released by the consultancy McKinsey & Co. in January, estimated that a little over half of all work could eventually be affected.

And as technology washes through the economy, it will probably hit the middle class hardest of all, economists think.

Employers will want workers with good intuition and creative thinking, so highly skilled, white-collar jobs like programmers and managers should fare fine, the reasoning goes.

And some low-paying hands-on jobs will need to be done by a person. Developing the robotics to do the work of a home health aide or a janitor, for instance, would be impractical, they say.

That leaves the middle in a squeeze, argues David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That kind of work was hit hardest in the Great Recession, he wrote in a 2010 paper, and middle-of-the-road jobs haven’t seen the same rebound since.

"Employment growth is polarizing, with job opportunities concentrated in relatively high-skill, high-wage jobs and low-skill, low-wage jobs," Autor wrote.

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Punch machine

Machine maintenance technician Casey Jones, left, and laser operator Jay Culbertson position a sheet of metal in an automated punch machine at SafeRack's factory in Andrews. Wade Spees/Staff

Trump and his administration have so far said little about how automation has changed manufacturing, but it could pose a challenge to their economic agenda.

The White House has proposed to change the tax code, cut regulations and rework trade deals. The president’s first actions have included orders to cut regulations and remove the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement.

The goal, the White House says in its platform, is to create 25 million jobs, with a focus on manufacturing, which it calls "the backbone of our economy."

But economists contend that manufacturing isn’t likely to give the job market the support it once did. Hicks, the Ball State economist, says that factories are becoming smaller, more automated and more urban.

In its place, other sorts of jobs are growing fast — from programmers who advance technology to supply chain workers who sort and move the goods flowing across the country. The point, Hicks says, is that being able to pick up new skills will be increasingly important as the job market evolves.

At the old Oneita knitting mill, McClary, the Andrews mayor, says he’s hopeful that long-abandoned site will have life again. A group of investors is interested in moving in, cleaning up the place and sewing and dyeing shirts.

"We still have life," McClary says. "We’re hopeful."

Yet he acknowledges that it still wouldn’t make Andrews the textile-making town it used to be — at least not like the one enshrined in the downtown mural.

Whoever moves in, they’ll probably need fewer people to spin, knit and sew cotton. Technology will handle the rest.

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703 or on Twitter @thadmoore.