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In light of these obstacles, how can Oregon maintain its upward trajectory? Paradoxically, job-killing automation may reduce the need for off-shoring, says Beleiciks. “As labor becomes a smaller portion of the output then it makes for less of a need to go after cheaper labor by off-shoring. There has been a lot of talk recently about on-shoring.”
Two case studies spotlight this phenomenon — as well as a growing emphasis on workforce training to keep local manufacturers competitive. In 2010, Portland-based KEEN Footwear opened a footwear factory in the Rose City. CEO James Curleigh — who has been in Oregon’s spotlight after meeting with President Obama in January –— cites three reasons: First, duty and transportation rates; labor and material costs in Asia have escalated, so “the economics of building in America start to make a lot more sense.” Second, digital-age “supply chain acceleration” has prompted the company to want tighter control over capacity, sourcing and quality standards. And third, KEEN used the factory to launch the higher-priced Utility line of steel-toed boots for American workers, which incorporated innovations they wanted to protect. Initially, the factory employed about 15 workers, but since then, as Utility became KEEN’s fastest growing brand, employment has doubled and Curleigh expects to hire more.
Earth2o, bottler of natural spring water in Culver, is another growing Oregon manufacturer. Last summer, demand was so strong for its product that it had to pull back from sales in Japan and reinvest to expand capacity, says CEO Steve Emery. And now it’s opened sales in China. Emery has seen “an expansion of marketplace” for Oregon products. “My friends in the beverage or the food industries all have been expanding their geography whether it’s outside the region or outside the country.”
One way Earth2o made its product stand out was by training its workforce in the highest level of NSF Safe Quality Food certification. Earth2o isn’t alone in using workforce training to raise its profile. Agnes Balassa, a workforce policy adviser to the governor, points to groups of small manufacturers that have banded together in consortia in recent years for high-performance trainings such as lean manufacturing, which not only reduces waste and spurs efficiency, she says, but also trains “a workforce to be more focused on problem-solving, quality management, being actively engaged with the work.”
“One of the challenges for our entire education system,” says Balassa, “is this dialog that says ‘manufacturing is dying.’” So students don’t tend to select into these programs … which will make it hard to sustain them.”
Why is it important to maintain skilled labor for manufacturers? These made-in-Oregon and exported out-of-state products bring “new money as opposed to circulating existing money,” says Balassa. State economist Beleiciks agrees, adding, “even if they’re not exporting, if they’re off-setting imports, it will have a similar effect.”
So aside from creating jobs, in-state manufacturing boosts tax revenues, provides income to Oregon stakeholders and induces development of necessary infrastructure.
Bringing actual manufacturing jobs back to Oregon will be an uphill battle. KEEN and Earth2o are only two examples of Oregon companies at the leading edge that may bring domestic manufacturing back from the brink.
Brandon Sawyer is research editor for Oregon Business. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: This story was corrected on April 30, 2012, to change "outsouring mania" to "off-shoring mania" in the first paragraph. THE EDITORS.