Encouraging signs at home

Published 6:42 pm Saturday, July 7, 2012

The next time you see a political candidate hold a campaign event inside some factory, think about why that venue was chosen as the backdrop for the speech.

Of course, politicians love to appear to connect with the common man, and in America, factory workers are seen as the prototypical Average Joe. Working factories also provide great imagery for television shots; as viewers watch goods being created on production lines behind the politicians, they can infer the candidates will support policies that promote growth and jobs.

What these motives hint at is the implicit acknowledgement of an oft-ignored fact: Even in this age of information technology and service industries, manufacturing continues to be a vital important part of the nation’s economy.

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According to the National Association of Manufacturers, the manufacturing sector contributes $1.7 trillion of value to the U.S. economy each year, accounting for about 11.7 percent of the total gross domestic product. The industry supports about 17 million jobs in the U.S. — one in six private-sector employees works in manufacturing. And the average manufacturing employee earned about $77,186 in pay and benefits in 2010, nearly 50 percent more than his neighbor in a non-manufacturing field.

The state of U.S. manufacturing, therefore, is inextricably entwined with the state of the nation’s economy in general. As the recession took hold, for example, the value of the private, goods-producing sector plunged in 2008 and 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. The value contributed to the GDP by that sector saw a moderate increase in 2010 and anemic growth in 2011, again reflecting the state of the economy at large.

None of this is all that surprising in Western Tidewater, where the reality of the pressures on the manufacturing sector became vividly clear in October 2009, when International Paper announced it would shutter the paper mill that it ran in Franklin. The announcement came on the trailing edge of the recession as it was officially defined, but right in the heart of the recession as it was felt locally. To some observers, the loss of the mill’s 1,000 jobs promised a dark period of unemployment, foreclosures and economic stagnation for Franklin and the surrounding area.

But manufacturing has had something of a rebirth since the low point in 2009. And there are increasing signs that Western Tidewater will participate in that renewal.

Last week, International Paper began producing fluff pulp for products like diapers on one of the six paper machines it had idled following the 2009 closure announcement. The conversion required a $90-million investment, and 200 people have been hired to work at the newly reopened mill. Another company, Enviva LP, plans a July 25 groundbreaking in Southampton County for a plant that will manufacture wood pellets to be used for fuel. That factory will employ more than 70 people.

Clearly, there is a long way to go before Western Tidewater makes up its losses in the manufacturing sector, much as the nation’s economy at large will take time to recoup the losses from the Great Recession. But it’s encouraging to see the vital manufacturing sector begin to recover right here in Western Tidewater. And, at least in the long term, perhaps that local recovery can give us hope for a broader one around the nation.