Charleston: The Southeast’s New Manufacturing Center

Key Takeaways

  • Regional manufacturing is expanding rapidly.

Manufacturing Growing in Charleston

In the larger national context of the United States, manufacturing employment has been in decline for several decades. In 2000, 17.3 million people were employed by manufacturers in the U.S. Today, 12.4 million people are employed across the country, a 28 percent decrease. In contrast, the Charleston area has increased manufacturing employment over the same period. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 22,700 people were employed in manufacturing in 2000 and 26,600 today – a 17 percent increase. More manufacturers are relocating to or expanding in Charleston, and the region is building a larger and stronger labor pool. How has Charleston bucked the national trend? It comes down to several key factors: access to the Port of Charleston, the ability to attract skilled labor from outside the region, competitive state incentives, a coordinated and proactive state and local economic development effort and clusters of suppliers and industries that create a diverse and synergetic manufacturing sector.

In a rapidly globalizing economy, port cities have a distinct advantage over their inland competitors; Charleston is no different. The Port of Charleston provides access to international markets and companies hoping to reach U.S. markets, and the combination of the Port and major infrastructure in the region, including multiple interstates and railways, means that Charleston can be a gateway to much of the eastern United States. Charleston has utilized this advantage to attract many manufacturers like Mercedes, Boeing and Volvo. Mercedes originally shipped vehicles into the U.S. in parts (kits) and assembled them for national distribution, utilizing the benefits of a foreign trade zone. Many other companies likewise located in the market to minimize the distance from their production facility to the point of entry or exit from the country.

With the nation and region approaching full employment, an acute shortage of skilled labor has developed. Charleston has met this challenge by creating the conditions that attract the needed workers to the market. Since 2010, nearly 12,500 people a year, or 35 people a day, have moved into the area – largely to fill thousands of jobs. When combined with a relatively low median home price of $261,000, a large pipeline of entitled single family home sites, good public schools and low taxes, the outlook for future growth is strong.

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