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Wednesday, 28 November 2007 00:00

WNC job outlook: Manufacturing out, entrepreneurship in

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By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Looking to start your own business? You should do well in Western North Carolina. Seeking a job in traditional manufacturing? Good luck, experts say — it won’t be easy to find.

The job scene in WNC is evolving. The region’s paper plants and furniture factories are either downsizing or closing, slowly being replaced by other industries that require a different set of skills. In a recently compiled report by the Haywood County Economic Development Commission illustrating employment trends in the county between now and 2012, manufacturing jobs decreased while careers in real estate and service industry stores rose. These statistics reflect the ever-changing lifestyle and demographics of the mountain region.

 

A manufacturing evolution

It’s not news that WNC has lost a significant portion of its manufacturing sector over recent years. Except for agriculture, manufacturing is the only industry in decline here — and that’s not unique, according to Western Carolina University professor James Smith. The loss of manufacturing is a national, and even international, trend.

“I don’t think anything is decreasing except for some manufacturing, but that’s a global trend. We’re not unique — if you think you’re going to have the same kind of jobs, a number of people employed making furniture, making paper or making yarn, you’re living in a dream world,” Smith said.

These labor-intensive manufacturing jobs are moving out of the region seeking lower cost labor in Mexico or China, said Mark Clasby, director of Haywood’s EDC. Manufacturing, though, isn’t necessarily moving out of the region altogether — it’s still here, just in a different form. Today, the trend is toward advanced manufacturing processes that are more specialized and can be done with fewer people.

“Advanced manufacturing processes are more cost sensitive and cost competitive. You may not be able to compete on labor rates, but you may be able to compete on quality and time,” said Scot Hamilton, executive vice president of AdvantageWest, the Western North Carolina economic development organization serving 23 western counties.

Advanced manufacturing means more automation and fewer, but more highly-skilled, workers. Industries like plastics, metalworking, and composite materials are all transitioning to using advanced manufacturing processes, and so are expected to stay in the region, Hamilton said.

“I think as the region continues to transform into an advanced manufacturing (region), we’re going to continue to see those types of jobs more than we’d see in traditional economy jobs,” he said.

While existing manufacturing industries are changing, new, smaller manufacturers are coming in. Many new businesses have a focus on sustainability and produce “things that are compatible with the region,” like wood products or other alternative fuel sources, said Louis Buck, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at WCU.

“If you look at the geography of the region, it’s a very environmentally sensitive region. The existing population and the population that’s moving in here are coming here to enjoy all the natural beauty here, and you’re not going to find large manufacturing or process industries in this region,” Buck said.

 

Entrepreneurship

Those with an entrepreneurial spirit should fare well in WNC in the coming years. Nearly 90 percent of the jobs in the region in the past 10 years have been created by small businesses with less than 500 employees, Buck said, compared to 70 percent of jobs nationally.

“I think it’s safe to say that the huge majority of economic growth that’s going to take place here is going to be the result of entrepreneurial startups,” Buck said.

Why are people looking to start businesses in WNC? For one, the beauty and environment of the region attracts them.

“I think the entrepreneurial sector is going to continue to win our communities because they’re a desirable place to be,” Hamilton said.

Also, the resources to establish a small business are widely available in the region. WCU offers student consulting teams to businesses at no cost and has the only online entrepreneurial master’s degree available in the region. The university’s Kimmel School boasts a Center for Rapid Product Realization. Haywood Community College’s Small Business Center offers an array of services to business start-ups.

“You’ve got a very rich community in terms of the academic support of entrepreneurial businesses,” said Buck.

Smith said the region’s broadband availability is another asset that attracts businesses.

“You could have a world-beating software company and our labor costs and costs of living are much lower than the national average,” he said. “I definitely see the potential for more companies to move to this area.”

If Haywood County’s projections are any indication, software companies will be a presence in WNC. The EDC study shows an additional 57 jobs in the computer-related services industry, or a 63 percent increase, by 2012.

Manufacturing in a different form is also making a comeback due to entrepreneurship. Hamilton gave the example of the furniture industry — niche manufacturers of specialty furniture are moving back to the region to establish advanced, smaller-scale manufacturing businesses.

In the long run, entrepreneurship is beneficial because it helps keep jobs in the community, Hamilton said.

“When your job growth comes from within your community, people that are there are rooted there. There’s more of a chance for jobs to stay there,” he said.

 

Newcomers fuel job growth

Another area of projected job growth in the region is in the service industry. Restaurants and clothing stores will both add more jobs in Haywood County, according to the EDC report — echoing a projected trend in other mountain counties catering to an increasing tourist and retiree population.

“(There will be) growth in anything relating to enhanced lifestyle because Western North Carolina is a place with four seasons, lots of space, wonderful outdoor activities, river rafting, hiking, biking,” and more, Smith said.

A growth in second homeowners and the year-round population of WNC will demand an increase in services. A wealthier population is projected to create 94 more jobs in Haywood County in the “private household” sector —maids, gardeners, etc. — according to the EDC report. Construction of second homes will also create jobs for contractors and real estate agents.

All income levels of the growing Haywood County population are expected to fuel job growth Haywood Regional Medical Center, currently the county’s third largest employer, according to Clasby. This is largely due to the above-average population of seniors flocking to the area.

In addition, the Haywood EDC report projects growth in local government jobs (an addition of 347 by 2012) to meet the needs of the growing population as well as an increase in jobs in civil and social organizations to address unmet needs.

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