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Mississippi manufacturing counties now in focus

There are eight counties in Mississippi that have more than 30 percent of their jobs in the manufacturing sector.  Do these counties have anything in common?  Are there any trends among them?    What are their futures?  A quick review of some of the economic data reveals some interesting insights.  

One of the most memorable field trips of my elementary school days was a visit to the local Coca-Cola Bottling plant.  Seeing the line of little bottle soldiers wiggling along, getting washed, being filled with carbonated liquid, being capped and then placed in cartons was something to behold.  Just as memorable have been my many trips to a variety of manufacturing facilities during my economic development career.  I have had the opportunity to see everything from automobiles to ketchup to refrigerators being processed, assembled and packaged.   Manufacturing is a fascinating, important and interesting sector of the economy.  Much has been written about the loss of, and the future of, manufacturing jobs in the United States.  In this column we will take a look at eight Mississippi counties where manufacturing is a big part of their local economies.  

Mississippi’s economic development strategy has not really changed much over the past 80 years.  In 1929, Columbia Mayor Hugh White devised a plan to bring a large manufacturing operation to his town.  Through his efforts, a company from Chicago, Reliance Manufacturing Company, opened a facility in Columbia in 1932.  The result was 300 new jobs and over a million dollars pumped into the local economy over the next 10 years.  It was not a bad strategy, especially considering that the national economy was in a slump.  

These days, Mississippi and just about every other state employ the same strategy.  No wonder.  According to the National Association of Manufacturers, in 2008, the average U.S. manufacturing worker earned $71,623 annually, including pay and benefits. The average non-manufacturing worker earned $57,064 annually.  In Northeast Mississippi, the average manufacturing worker earns $52,607, according to a 2008 report issued by the North Mississippi Industrial Development Association.

Given that background, let us look at the eight counties in Mississippi that have over 30 percent of their workforce in the manufacturing sector as of Feb. 10, 2010.  Those counties and their percentage of manufacturing employment are Pontotoc (55.6), Scott (47.7), Smith (37.7), Tippah (34.4), Prentiss (33.3), Noxubee (34.5), Jasper (32.6) and Jackson (31.6).  In looking at this list of counties, it is apparent that they have little in common except for their percentage of manufacturing employment.   For example, Pontotoc is a furniture manufacturing center, Noxubee is a food processing area and Jackson County is a heavy industrial center.  They are widely dispersed across the state.

When it comes to number of jobs, none of the counties comes close to Jackson County, which had 56,290 total jobs in Feb. 2010.  Pontotoc had 11,000 total jobs.  The fewest number of jobs in the eight counties was in Noxubee, which had 2,640 jobs.  Remove Jackson County from the list and the average number of total jobs in the remaining seven counties is 7,724.  Observation:  the counties with the highest percentage of manufacturing jobs are smaller counties.

How about the unemployment rate in these counties?  Noxubee leads the list with a 23.3 percent unemployment rate in Feb. 2010.  That compares to a 12 percent rate for the state, and 10.4 percent for the United States.   Scott County had the lowest unemployment rate of the group, with an 8.7 percent unemployment rate.  Only two counties, Scott and Jackson, had a lower unemployment rate than the state average.

Are these eight counties gaining or losing population?  The semi-good news is that five of the eight counties gained population from 2000 – 2008, according to the Census Bureau.  The reason for the “semi-good” note is that although they gained population, they gained less than the state gain of 3.3 percent.  Jackson, Noxubee and Smith lost population.  Pontotoc, which had an 8.5 percent increase in population during the period, was the only county among the eight to gain more than the state average.  Observation:  With one exception, the eight counties with the highest percentage of manufacturing jobs are not growing as fast as the state average.

What about earnings?  The 2007 average per capita income in Mississippi was $28,541. Jackson County, where the higher-paying aerospace and defense industries are a big part of the economy, leads the pack with an average per capita income of $34,187.  In a distant second was Pontotoc at $24,314.  Remove Jackson County from the list, and the range of per capita income is from $20,338 to $24,314.  The per capita income average for the eight counties is $24,142.  Without Jackson County, the average per capita income is $22,707.  Observation:  Seven of the eight counties have lower per capita income averages that the state average.

So what can we conclude from looking at this slice of manufacturing in Mississippi?  If anything, it would be that manufacturing, like politics, seems to be local.  Given the relatively small population of the above counties, it is obvious that any changes in manufacturing employment can mean a big change in the local community.  Add a manufacturer with 100 jobs at an average of $50,000 per year, and there will be a significant change in the economy and even the quality of life in the county.  Take away 100 jobs that pay an average of $24,142 per year, and there will also be a significant change in the community.

Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Contact him at phil@philhardwick.com.


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