Employers look to sell new generation on manufacturing jobs

Not long after Paula McWhirter-Buck graduated from Burnsville’s East Yancey High School in 1974, her mother laid down the law: It was time to get a job.

So McWhirter-Buck found work as an industrial sewing machine operator for Blue Bell Inc.’s Micaville factory, which made Lady Wrangler blue jeans.

“Most of my friends, most of my classmates and most of the people that I know either worked there or at one of the other manufacturing plants in the area [including Glen Raven Mills in Burnsville],” she says. “That was pretty much the industry here then. It was all textiles.”

For generations of Western North Carolinians like McWhirter-Buck, textile plants and other manufacturing companies provided a steady paycheck in exchange for a hard day’s work. And some of the area’s larger firms, including American Enka, Beacon Manufacturing, the Ecusta Paper Corp. and DuPont, did more than that, creating a sense of community through mill villages, company stores, industrial league baseball teams, social events and more.

The number of manufacturing jobs in WNC and nationally peaked in the late 1970s, just a few years after McWhirter-Buck began working at Blue Bell. Then came a long, steady decline, driven by new technology and cheaper foreign competition. The Blue Bell factory, after a couple of name changes, was shuttered in 2007.

“Forty years ago, someone could drop out of high school, go get a job at Beacon Manufacturing, buy a home, raise their family, send their kids to college,” he says Nathan Ramsey, director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board. “That was not unheard of. Probably there were thousands of cases where that actually did happen. That’s no longer possible today.”

Yet WNC manufacturing is far from dead. With about 22,000 total employees, manufacturing still ranks as the fifth-largest industry in the region encompassing Buncombe, Henderson, Haywood, Madison and Transylvania counties, according to Ramsey’s data. It is also the third-fastest growing employment sector.

Lightcast, a firm that gathers labor market data, says the Asheville region had 880 manufacturing job postings as of July. Ramsey thinks that number is a significant undercount and estimates that job openings in the sector exceed 1,200.

Opportunities abound, and these jobs generally come with decent pay: Current entry-level starting wages run $18-$22 per hour, above the $17.70 living wage rate recognized by nonprofit Just Economics of WNC. But local employment experts say it can nevertheless be a challenge to interest young people in the field. What’s driving this mismatch between the demand for workers and the supply of employees?

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The first obstacle to attracting manufacturing employees, says kevin kimrey, is simply making them aware that the jobs exist. “If you go to Hendersonville or go to Asheville, you would never think there were even two manufacturers in either town, but they’re tucked way back up in the woods all over the place around here,” says the director of economic and workforce development at AB Tech.