The manufacturing sector continues to be good in Mississippi in spite of pressing issues and its lagging status in the rest of the country. With 14% to 15% of the workforce directly engaged in manufacturing, the state ranks seventh in the U.S. for that percentage. The national figure is around 10%.
“The past 12 months were real positive, and we’re bucking the national trend,” said Jay Moon, executive director of the Mississippi Manufacturing Association (MMA). “Our diversified base helps. You only have to look at Louisiana’s oil and gas industry to see that. It’s doing good now but that wasn’t true a few years ago.”
Gray Swoope of the Mississippi Development Authority notes that the state, like many states, has seen a decrease in manufacturing jobs over the last decade, but that changed during the past four years.
“We have been able to slow the exodus of jobs and replace many with high paying, value-added manufacturing jobs,” he said. “While the state has seen manufacturing jobs decrease, total manufacturing payroll has increased. Companies such as SeverCorr that pay salaries over $80,000 per year are leading the way to the manufacturing jobs of the future.”
Moon points out a number of expansions by home-grown companies, including Howard Industries and Viking Range and announcements by such giants as Toyota, G.E. and Paccar at a time when there are also some closures.
“We continue to have issues that must be watched, led by the increasing cost of energy. Manufacturers are big users of energy, and I hear about it from my members,” he said. “The cost of commodities is up, too, and all costs have to be passed along down the line.”
He cites the increased costs of copper, steel and aluminum in addition to petroleum products along with manufacturing competition around the world as other challenges. “There are a broad series of cost factors in the global economy we have to watch to make sure we don’t do anything to make us less competitive,” he said.
Mississippi, as part of the fastest-growing region in the country, banks on its diversity, great infrastructure, good workforce and geographic location to have industries courting. Recent successes have brought positive attention too.
The star of announcements, the Toyota plant under construction near Tupelo, is putting the state in a new light globally. Moon feels Toyota will continue its development despite the recently announced postponement of the start of production. Tupelo economic developer David Rumbarger sees a silver lining in the postponement. He believes the additional time will enable the company to further develop its product line and hire more local employees.
“Our people can get more training,” he said. “Toyota is holding off because of a slump in the automobile market, but they have millions in the ground now, and they haven’t let up on construction. It’s proceeding ahead.”
Already a leading manufacturing area of the state, Tupelo is seeing its furniture industry holding on but in a slump.
“In general, economic conditions have caused manufacturers to step back and take a look at their costs,” Rumbarger said. “There are some shipping difficulties with contract carriers who have reduced fleets. That’s creating an interim shortage with goods waiting on docks — the first time I’ve seen that in my eight years here.”
Area manufacturers are looking at alternative transportation methods and consumer sur charges, plus making more investments in automation and employee training.
Continuing workforce training is a key ingredient for the state’s manufacturing future. Moon says the state has a good workforce, but it’s stretched thin. “We hear a lot about changes in manufacturing toward new lean production techniques and technology that’s being used,” he said. “In many parts of the state it’s getting hard to find qualified workers. We’ve got to continue training and trying to curb the dropout rate.”
New types of manufacturing sometimes require fewer workers, but the strength of the state’s manufacturing is not necessarily equated with numbers. That said, Mississippi still has 172,000 people directly employed in manufacturing and many others indirectly employed to the tune of approximately $9 billion per year in wages.
Swoope agrees. “Mississippi continues to be a strong manufacturing state by continually improving the skills of its workforce, reducing the cost of doing business and by providing an environment that allows companies to thrive,” he said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.