SC's aerospace industry soaring

Boeing South Carolina manufactures parts for and assembles the 787-8. It will start work this fall on the North Charleston factory's first 787-9, a longer version of the Dreamliner.

Led by Boeing Co., the aerospace industry in South Carolina helped lead the state out of the recession and now employs nearly 54,000 people with a $17 billion economic impact, a new study says.

"If it continues at the current rate, it will become a major pillar for South Carolina's economy," said Joey Von Nessen, a research economist at the University of South Carolina's Darla Moore School of Business.

Von Nessen's study of the state's aerospace industry, released Tuesday during the state's first Aerospace Industry Day in Columbia, measured civilian and military aircraft-related jobs.

The Palmetto State's aerospace cluster includes core firms, such as Boeing, operating directly within the industry, four military installations in the state and smaller private companies supporting the aviation and aerospace sector.

The study found that 466 core aerospace firms employ more than 17,000 people. The single biggest chunk, about 6,500, work at Boeing in North Charleston. The rest are scattered across the state.

Charleston Air Force Base employs more than 20,000 and three other aerospace-related military facilities in the state - Shaw Air Force Base, McEntire Joint National Guard Base and the Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station - account for more than 16,000 other jobs.

The three counties in the Charleston area, where Boeing builds 787 Dreamliners next to the air base, account for 86 of the aerospace firms in the state, according to the state Department of Commerce. The Midlands, made up of 11 counties, has 89 such firms, while the Upstate's 11 counties have 156 firms.

Von Nessen called Boeing "the poster child" for the state's expanding aerospace industry, but he said a lot of smaller firms with fewer than five employees make up a good portion of all aerospace workers.

The sector makes up 6-7 percent of the state's gross product and provides $532 million in tax revenue to state coffers, according to the study.

"Aerospace has really developed into a thriving cluster in South Carolina," Von Nessen said. "It's become a major powerhouse for economic growth in South Carolina."

The industry has been rapidly expanding during the past decade, and really took off after Boeing landed in North Charleston in 2009, he added.

"Much like BMW accelerated the growth of the state's automotive industry, South Carolina's aerospace industry has grown exponentially since Boeing selected the Charleston region in 2009," said state Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt, who once worked at BMW.

"And the 'Boeing boost' continues as we recruit major global suppliers - like carbon fiber manufacturer Toray Industries - that serve the aerospace cluster in South Carolina," Hitt added. Toray, a Boeing supplier, decided earlier this year to locate in the Upstate, bringing 500 jobs and a $1 billion investment over the next decade.

With the multiplier effect from suppliers and aerospace workers spending money in the community, the total jobs supported by the aerospace industry are estimated between 102,000 and 127,000, pumping between $7.3 billion and $8.6 billion in compensation into the state's economy. The total economic impact is between $17.4 billion and $22.5 billion.

"For every 10 jobs (in the aerospace sector), an additional 12 are created," Von Nessen said.

The jobs also support the state's "knowledge economy," or technical sector, of innovation and idea sharing and provide higher incomes as more engineers come to the state.

The average total compensation for someone in the aerospace cluster is about $71,000. By contrast, the average pay for a worker in manufacturing is about $48,000. The average worker in South Carolina earns just over $41,000.

Commerce said it's important for the state to remain on the cutting edge of having sites ready to support industries in the aerospace sector. It said the state will spend $2 billion over the new few years for cargo-related infrastructure from warehousing to harbor deepening.

"We have to be as competitive as possible in workforce development and sites, making sure we have a number of available sites with spec buildings, encouraging our county partners to get in the game," said Commerce spokeswoman Allison Skipper. "Infrastructure from water and sewer to roadways and rail, all of these factors come into play."

Von Nessen called the $79 million proposed aerospace training center at Trident Technical College "important for aerospace to be a thriving cluster for economic growth."

Asked whether the state should provide more funding, he said that was a political and budget decision. The state allocated $10 million for the center this year.

The study was released by New Carolina - South Carolina's Council on Competitiveness and USC's Ronald E. McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research.

"This study shows the aerospace cluster has the potential to raise average employee compensation, grow small businesses and drive economic growth in our state," said Ann Marie Stieritz, president and CEO of New Carolina.

The study will also serve as a benchmark to measure progress in the industry, said Martin Keaney, executive director of the McNair Center.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or