The future of manufacturing in North Carolina

February 12, 2013 at 8:30 am

Today was the first day of the Emerging Issues Forum, organized by NC State’s Institute for Emerging Issues. The theme of the forum for this year, “Manufacturing Works,” looks at the future of manufacturing in the state. From all the enlightening discussions today– on the democratization of design and production, the need for a skilled workforce, changes in the economic climate and within the sector, technological advances, and new modes of funding such as crowd sourcing– it seems that there is some hope for a resurgence in manufacturing in the years to come. The tools and technology required to take ideas and turn them into products are more widely accessible today than ever before, allowing smaller businesses and innovators to step into the gap.

In a report published last week, The North Carolina Rural Center reported that 2011 marked the first time in 16 years that the state saw a net increase in manufacturing jobs. The sector accounts for 14 percent of employment in the state’s rural counties overall, and 20 percent of employment in 18 of these counties.  The sector provides good wages and provides an opportunity for workers to create long-term wealth. Although manufacturing looks very different today than it did in previous decades, some things remain the same– notably, the need for long-term public investments, especially in education and infrastructure  to create a fertile environment for the growth of manufacturing industries.

With manufacturing making gains in our state economy, the time is right for such investments. In order to make these investments, our state needs to have the resources to do so, but the issue of tax reform and state revenues has become a hot-button issue in the state’s political discourse these days, particularly with the proposal to eliminate the personal and corporate income taxes.  In recent years, state programs and services across the board have faced significant budget cuts, and despite small spending increases we still have not yet been able to get back to pre-recession funding levels.  Public education has seen a nearly 12 percent cut, while natural and economic resources have been cut by almost 50 percent since Fiscal Year 2008. Our state’s transportation infrastructure is already strained, and with budget cuts and the cap in the gas tax, resources for repairs and upgrades will be limited.

If we want to make investments in our state for the long-term to create good jobs and spark innovation, we need a tax system that is stable, fair, and effective in raising revenue. Investments in infrastructure and education would do much more than support manufacturing; these investments would uphold the economic healthy and vitality of North Carolina for generations to come. The private sector may not be ready to invest the trillions of dollars in cash that it is currently sitting on, but the public sector certainly should step in to invest in our collective future.

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