Advocates for the aerospace industry in South Carolina say that it could grow to be as large as the automotive sector, led by BMW and Michelin. But can the Midlands take part?
With Boeing employing more than 7,500 in North Charleston and many suppliers located nearby, the Lowcountry has been the epicenter of the surge of aerospace work in South Carolina. The Upstate, considered the core of the state’s manufacturing base, has also enjoyed the benefits of investment.
Those involved in helping the state’s aerospace cluster develop say there still is a lot more to come, and the Midlands can take part. “We’re in the early stages,” says Deborah Cameron, director of aerospace initiatives for the S.C. Council on Competitiveness, the nonprofit dedicated to boosting key state economic clusters.
The industry is already strong in South Carolina and in the Midlands, especially when taking into account such sectors as air freight and military aviation. Overall, the industry has an economic impact of almost $8 billion on South Carolina, according to a study by USC’s Darla Moore School of Business.
All areas of the state take part in the aerospace cluster’s economic activity, thanks to the contributions of the military and local airports. The Midlands ranks third of eight geographic regions in the state for concentration of aerospace-related employees. The Charleston region ranks first, and the Lowcountry ranks second. Boeing has been a boon for the Lowcountry.
Aerospace is also showing impressive employment growth. The sector has posted job growth of 11.4 percent on average since 2010 to 2014, according to the economic study. That’s eight times higher than the state’s growth as a whole.
Columbia is home to a key asset in the state’s aerospace cluster — the University of South Carolina’s McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research. The McNair Center has been launched to spur growth in aerospace engineering and research. It is named for Ronald E. McNair, the astronaut from Lake City, S.C., who lost his life in the Challenger shuttle disaster.
The McNair Center is designed both to educate the future workers in the aerospace industry and to be a resource for companies in the sector, according to Martin Keaney. Through those two programs, the center strives to help the state cash in on the promise of Boeing’s investment in the state. “It’s probably a one-in-100-year opportunity,” Martin says.
The university had no aerospace offerings until the fall semester of 2013, Martin explains, but now the College of Engineering has more than 20 undergraduates studying aerospace and is expecting to have more than 20 graduate students in the coming year.
The industry needs much more than just engineers; it will also need to tap into those who can manage a supply chain or take part in the high-tech manufacturing of aerospace. That kind of work is far different from the hot, sweaty labor of manufacturing’s past. “Modern manufacturing is not your great-grandfather’s work,” Martin says. “It is high-tech and air-conditioned.”
To aid aerospace research, the McNair Center has invested in the latest equipment that replicates the composite fiber construction of Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner aircraft. In the 787, these composite materials replace aluminum for much of the airplane including the fuselage. This reduces the overall weight of the aircraft and allows it to use less fuel.
“There is still much to be learned about the properties of these composites,” Martin continues. “That includes improving the manufacturing process. Making aircraft is more labor-intensive and less automated than the work at the BMW plant in Greer, for instance. That slow, hands-on process is a great candidate for improvement.”
The McNair Center is a resource for smaller aerospace companies that can tap into its research facilities. “A smaller company might not have the lab capacity to study new composite manufacturing techniques or the effects of lightning, but it can contract to do that work with McNair facilities and experts,” he says. “Only a few years old, the center is already working with companies on research, and Boeing continues to be interested in what is being done at McNair.” Boeing has its own research center in its North Charleston complex.
Those students who move into the aerospace industry will find that the Southeast has numerous companies, big and small, in the field. Boeing is the one that everyone in South Carolina knows, but other major aerospace manufacturers are not far away: Jet maker Gulfstream has a major complex in Savannah, Ga., while Honda Aircraft has its headquarters and HondaJet facility in Greensboro, N.C., and Lockheed Martin performs aircraft maintenance and modifications at its facility in Greenville. “There’s a lot of activity in this industry,” Deborah says.
The Southeast’s concentration of manufacturers puts the Midlands right in the middle of a lot of opportunities, according to Deborah. She sees an advantage for the Midlands in its workforce, especially with the large contingent of ex-military personnel here. That’s a tailor-made workforce for companies that need strong attention to detail and includes some with experience working on aircraft, she points out. “Military experience really helps,” she says.
One of the challenges to attracting any new business to South Carolina is providing the needed workforce, according to Jeff Ruble, senior vice president at South Carolina Power Team, an agency representing the economic development interest of Santee Cooper and the state’s electric cooperatives. “Labor is the constant for any industry in the state,” Jeff says.
As industries become more high-tech and specialized, the state has to be ready to train those workers — or have an increasing talent pool already on hand, he says. That kind of training takes more time than it would have a few years ago, when a few days of preparation would suffice for some manufacturing work. The shortest training classes, even for the most basic work, are three to six weeks long. “You just can’t do that anymore,” Jeff says. “The Midlands also needs to make sure that it has the ready-to-develop site that industries often want.” Richland and Lexington counties have increasing pressure for viable industrial sites, whereas other areas such as Orangeburg and Sumter have an abundance of land.
“South Carolina has the pieces to compete on aerospace, but it has only begun to put them together. We’re building it from the ground up,” he says.
According to Burnie Maybank, a member of the Nexsen Pruet law firm who concentrates in economic development, “Aerospace suppliers don’t run through parts at the rate that other industries do, because they only work on a few airplanes at a time,” he says. “That means that suppliers don’t need to be right down the street from the main assembly site. That works in the favor of the Midlands gaining more offshoots from Boeing’s growth.” He also notes, however, that Boeing has a supply chain for the 787 that stretches across continents, with parts flown from factory to factory for final assembly. “That means South Carolina can’t assume growth will be clustered in the state.”
How big could the aerospace cluster become for South Carolina and the Midlands? Everyone agrees on the potential of the sector to continue creating high-paying jobs in the state, not just with Boeing but with the companies that partner to provide its parts and the entrepreneurs who lead the many small companies in the field.
According to the USC economic impact study, the aerospace sector has created the same number of direct jobs as the automotive sector did between 1990 and 2007, as BMW built its presence in South Carolina. Aerospace and aviation, including our military bases, create an annual economic impact of more than $17 billion across the state, the study reports.
That’s an impact that Columbia already takes part in and hopes to see grow. “I do think the Midlands is very well-positioned,” Deborah says.
Aviation Rising In South Carolina
• The aerospace sector, both civilian and military, creates $8 billion in economic output across the state, with 37,150 total jobs and more than $2 billion in employee pay and benefits per year as of 2014.
• The aerospace sector also contributes to South Carolina’s tax revenues, to the tune of about $532 million annually.
• Almost three-quarters of the more than 450 companies in the S.C. aerospace sector are small firms, with five or fewer employees.
• The Midlands’ two major military aviation sites, Shaw Air Force Base and McEntire Joint National Guard Base, together employ more than 11,000 people.