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Report Examines North Carolina's Manufacturing Transformation

Chemical production is the top manufacturing industry in North Carolina. (littlewolf1989/Adobe Stock)
Chemical production is the top manufacturing industry in North Carolina. (littlewolf1989/Adobe Stock)
June 25, 2019

RALEIGH, N.C. — Manufacturing looks different in North Carolina today than it did in the past, according to a new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

In the second half of the 20th century, manufacturing expanded into the Southeast from the Midwest. And in 2000, it was the top employer in North Carolina and 17 other states. But according to the report, by 2016 manufacturing accounted for 8% of the state's workforce, a drop from 16% in 2000.

Matthew Meyer, associate vice president for business engagement and national and international partnership with the North Carolina Community College Association, contends that advances in automation have contributed to the shift.

"The analogy is the fisherman who had a fishing pole, now another fisherman comes in with a fishing net. The net can grab more fish, and so it replaces all those individuals with the fishing pole,” Meyer said. “Productivity went up, but it took less fishermen. However, somebody had to be able to make that fishing net."

Despite the decline, the report underscored increases in production capability, with manufacturing adding $4 trillion in economic output nationally from 1947-2016. In North Carolina, manufacturing output per worker rose from $123,000 in 2000 to $195,000 in 2016.

Neil Ridley, state initiative director at the Georgetown Center, said the downturn in manufacturing has meant a loss of economic opportunity for less educated workers.

"Manufacturing going back to the 1940s has been a primary source of employment for workers with a high school diploma or less,” Ridley said. “In fact, in 1980, nearly a third of all high school-educated workers found a job in manufacturing."

As an economic and social policy consultant with South by North Strategies in Chapel Hill, John Quinterno said it's important to examine the factors behind the changing industry dynamic.

"We shouldn't forget the role that public policy has played, such as liberalization of trade systems since 2000 (and) other factors like the recession in 2001 and 2008, and the ways in which policymakers chose to address or not address those challenges,” Quinterno said.

In 2016, the top three manufacturing industries by output in North Carolina were chemical sectors, food and beverage and tobacco products, and computer and electronic products.

Disclosure: Georgetown University, Center on Education and the Workforce contributes to our fund for reporting on Education, Livable Wages/Working Families. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Mary Schuermann Kuhlman, Public News Service - NC