‘An Industrial Powerhouse’

Increased wages, demand for highly skilled workers have boosted the Upstate’s status as a manufacturing hub


The chapter has long been closed on the Upstate’s reign as a textile hub.

But manufacturing, which has been vital to the region’s economic growth and culture for almost 150 years, continues to thrive.

Led by several global brands, such as BMW, Michelin, Bosch, GE, Fluor, AFL, Magna, and others, state and local business leaders said the industry is arguably stronger and more diverse today than it has ever been.

More than 1,800 manufacturers, including about 460 foreign companies, currently call the Upstate home, according to Upstate SC Alliance, an organization that seeks to position the region to excel globally through strategic marketing, collaboration, and thought leadership.

The Upstate’s increasing proficiency in several sub-sectors — advanced materials, aerospace, automotive, bioscience, and energy — continues to attract investment and jobs from new and expanding companies.

“It’s impossible to overstate the role that manufacturing has played in transforming the economy of both the Upstate and South Carolina as a whole,” said S.C. Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt.

“With the rise of complex manufacturing, our state and our workforce have built a reputation as a global brand state — a state that not only makes things but makes them well,” Hitt added. “This reputation continues to attract industry leaders from around the world who now view South Carolina as an industrial powerhouse.”

Companies like BMW, Michelin, Bosch, GE, Fluor, AFL, Magna, and others, have helped the Upstate manufacturing industry transition from textiles to more advanced sectors. Photo by Will Crooks.

Manufacturing accounts for $13.3 billion, about 22 percent, of the Upstate’s nearly $60 billion gross regional product, Upstate SC Alliance said.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the industry supports 107,837 jobs in the region, which comprises 21 percent of the Upstate’s workforce not including state and federal government jobs.

As of June 2017, manufacturing makes up about 14 percent of South Carolina’s employment base and 10 percent of the nation’s workforce.

The average weekly wage for manufacturing employees in the Upstate is $1,030, compared with the state’s average of $1,135 and the nation-al average of $1,152.

In June 2001, the industry supported 145,340 jobs in the Upstate, which was 30 percent of the region’s workforce.

The average weekly wage for manufacturing employees in the Upstate, however, was only $638 in 2001.

That means while the region’s total number of manufacturing jobs has decreased by about 26 percent since the demise of textiles, its industry wages have increased by more than 61 percent.

“Manufacturing has been our lifeblood and part of our DNA since the late 1880s,” said Spartanburg County Councilman David Britt. “It’s who we are. It saved Spartanburg and the Upstate. It has given us the ability to reshape and redefine ourselves.”

Britt said he believes wage growth is one area that reflects the changes Upstate manufacturing has undergone, particularly during the past decade.

“It’s nothing like what it was with textiles,” he said. “Manufacturing companies are in need of highly skilled workers. They are realizing they have to focus on attracting the top talent. It goes back to that saying that a rising tide floats all boats. People who live in the Upstate have an abundance of opportunities in manufacturing that weren’t there in years past.”

“When you look around the landscape of the Upstate, you will see we have state-of-the-art facilities that the world recognizes and tries to emulate,” Britt added. “These companies dig deep holes to bury their roots in. It’s not easy to just uproot these companies.”

Britt said the perception of manufacturing being a dirty, low-skill, low-wage profession is simply false.

Many of the job announcements made by new or expanding manufacturing companies include many high-skill and white-collar positions, such as engineers, executive staff, sales associates, and jobs in research and development.

In Greenville and Spartanburg counties, which boast the highest numbers of manufacturing jobs in the Upstate, the average weekly wage for manufacturing employees is $1,262 and $1,213, respectively.

That means the average annual wage for manufacturing employees is $65,624 in Greenville and $63,076 in Spartanburg.

“The Upstate has done a very good job as it relates to the economy, specifically in adapting to changes in manufacturing,” said Dean Hybl, executive director of Ten at the Top, an organization that promotes collaboration, coordination, and cooperation across the 10-county region of the Upstate.

“During the last 20, 30, even 40 years, our leaders have done an excellent job positioning the region as a manufacturing hub,” Hybl added. “We still make things, whereas a lot of other communities across the nation that used to make things don’t anymore.”

Hybl said the industry’s growth and advances in technology have presented the region with challenges, as companies across the Upstate are vying for highly skilled, highly trained employees.

Regional leaders, colleges, technical schools, and industry partners are working hard at changing perceptions and developing advanced degree programs in manufacturing, Hybl said.

BMW, Michelin, and several other companies with European roots have adopted scholars or apprenticeship programs.

Prospective manufacturing employees can also take advantage of the state’s Apprenticeship Carolina program, which provides supervised on-the-job training and job-related education in the classroom.

“We’re in the midst of it,” Hybl said. “We’re still figuring it out. It’s no coincidence that many public schools have spent money on their vocational facilities. We are adapting. This is a generational change. It takes time. It’s not something you can solve overnight.”

Clemson University’s Deep Orange Project is a vehicle prototyping program that immerses graduate students in the world of automotive engineering. Pictured here is the project’s seventh generation vehicle unveiled in October at BMW Manufacturing Co.’s Zentrum. Photo by Leland Outz.

Hybl said the Upstate has a lot of things going for it that make it attractive for manufacturing, including interstates, great quality of life, good schools, and the South Carolina Ports Authority’s Inland Port in Spartanburg County.

Workforce development, transportation infrastructure improvements, and the proper and wise use of tax incentives are a few of the issues state and regional leaders will have to tackle, he said.

“The reality is that the Upstate is competing with communities across the globe,” Hybl said. “Fortunately, we’re in a region with leaders who recognize those problems and are willing to tackle them. … Holistically, we’re trying to grow our pie.”

John Lummus, president and CEO of Upstate SC Alliance, said manufacturing will continue to be vitally important to the Upstate.

In order to maintain growth, Lummus said, the region must encourage research, development, and innovation, and companies have to proactively seek customers overseas.

He said the Upstate also needs to continue to keep an eye on the “continued revolution and the rise of automation” and to view “innovations in materials,” especially carbon fibers and composites, as drivers for the region’s future.

“I am fascinated by the question, ‘How do we embrace technology and innovation?’” Lummus said. “How do we ensure that our manufacturing base takes a leadership role in embracing these changes? There is tremendous opportunity for our industries, public sector, and [Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research] to partner and identify the opportunities that arise with automated vehicle technology, electrical power sources, and the internet of things.”

“All businesses are affected by these technological advances,” Lummus said, “but with a proactive approach, we can leverage them to use these changes to our advantage so that we continue to be a leader.”


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