WASHINGTON -- South Carolina's Upstate is among the country's top exporters, sending nearly $3.5 billion worth of products overseas, according to a new report.
The Greenville-Mauldin-Easley region ranked 73rd among the largest 100 metropolitan areas in export revenue, with much of that money coming from machinery sales abroad, according to the Brookings Institution study of 2008 data.
Several other areas -- Concord, N.C., greater Charleston, Columbia and Richmond County, Ga. -- also were ranked. Concord and Richmond County were parts of regions that straddled North Carolina and Georgia respectively.
The area classified as Charleston, North Charleston and Summerville was ranked No. 79 nationwide, with transportation equipment listed as the top export. Columbia was 82nd.
With companies like BMW, General Electric, Caterpillar, Michelin and Baldor operating in the Upstate, the region's high ranking for exports isn't a surprise, said Charles Wilson, who heads the machine-tool technology program at Greenville Technical College.
"We are a community of builders right here," he said. "Of course, we love to export … because that's the bread and butter."
South Carolina has aggressively wooed manufacturing companies for decades.
Then.-Gov. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, who later served as a Democratic U.S. senator, set up a network of technical colleges in the early 1960s to train workers for the state's growing industrial base.
Later governors such as Republican Carroll Campbell, who persuaded German automaker BMW to set up shop in the Upstate in the early 1990s, also were big proponents of manufacturing, Wilson said.
High-tech companies making cars, wind turbines and energy-efficient machinery have long since replaced labor-intensive textile companies across the Upstate. Textile companies that survived have invested heavily in new equipment and worker training to compete against imports from China, Vietnam, India and other nations.
Though South Carolina has suffered high unemployment during the two-year recession, its economy appears to be picking up.
Unemployment is down this month. Lewis Gossett, president of the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance, said many companies are hiring back some or all of the workers they let go.
"If South Carolina is going to emerge from this economic downturn, continue to emerge, then manufacturing is going to lead us out," Gossett said. "I wouldn't have told you that four years ago."
South Carolina's manufacturing and export revenue will grow as firms such as Boeing and electric busmaker Proterra set up major operations and hire thousands of workers, he said.
South Carolina manufacturers' biggest worry, beyond even foreign competition and rising imports, is the maze of federal laws and regulations that can drive up the cost of doing business, Gossett said. For example, companies are bracing for the Environmental Protection Agency's regulations limiting greenhouse gases, he said.
The Brookings study found that the New York-New Jersey area was the top exporter in the country two years ago, generating $85 billion worth of revenue mainly by sending chemicals overseas.
The Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Dallas-Forth Worth areas rounded out the Top 5, exporting computers and other electronic products.
Exports created 11.8 million good-paying jobs across the U.S., the report found.
In South Carolina, manufacturing workers earned an average $46,000 in 2008, according to a study done for the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance.
The Post and Courier contributed to this report.