After hemorrhaging blue-collar jobs for decades, metro Atlanta is slowly recouping manufacturing jobs lost to the recession and China.
Chicken pluckers and Cisco engineers alike are in high demand across the region, as an improving economy, a weaker dollar and rising Asian salaries converge to the benefit of Atlantans who make, mix or mold things.
“You can’t outsource your quesadilla to Taiwan,” said Brad Howard, who runs Suzanna’s Kitchen, a chicken and pork processor in Duluth.
While metro Atlanta is not known for its blue-collar brawn, the region’s economic renaissance, like the nation’s, could well depend upon skilled, well-paid factory workers, according to a study released Wednesday by a Washington think tank.
A surprising 80 percent of the nation’s manufacturing jobs are located in and around the nation’s cities, according to the Brookings Institution report on trends in what it terms “the geography of production.”
Metro Atlanta alone tallies 150,000 manufacturing jobs, a gain of 9,000 since early 2010. A decade ago, the region had 186,300 such jobs.
The Atlanta region posted a 4.3 percent increase in manufacturing jobs in the past two years. U.S. cities, overall, notched only a 2.7 percent increase.
“Manufacturing is pretty diversified in Atlanta like many large areas -- New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Chicago -- and that can be a strength because you don’t have all your eggs in one basket,” said Howard Wial, a Brookings economist who co-authored the report. “And manufacturing today needs engineers and highly skilled managers who are easier to attract to metropolitan areas.”
2012 is a critical year in Atlanta’s economic evolution, with long-agonizing water, transit and school problems coming to a head. Last year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in a series titled Atlanta Forward, chronicled the region’s challenges and concluded that the problems, if unresolved, could lead to lost jobs and civic luster.
With construction and government jobs still disappearing, Atlanta is searching for the next new thing to propel its economy. A return to its manufacturing core could be a big economic boost. And 2012 has started with a bang.
Baxter International announced last month the construction of a plasma “factory” and 1,500 jobs in Covington, on metro Atlanta’s eastern edge. In February, Caterpillar Inc. said it will make small tractors and excavators in Athens, eventually employing 1,400 workers.
Both manufacturing projects, with salaries ranging from $38,000 to $60,000, underscore the urban manufacturing trend highlighted by nonprofit Brookings. No longer, the think tank reports, is manufacturing synonymous with Rust Belt factories, overseas flight or “greenfield sites” in rural America.
Manufacturing can’t solve all urban economic ills. Nationwide, factory work accounts for 8.5 percent of jobs nationwide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In metro Atlanta, only 6.2 percent of the 28-county region’s 2.3 million jobs are in manufacturing. Business services -- accountants, temp workers, engineers, lawyers -- tally the lion’s share with 412,000. Government (318,000), retail (256,000), health care (223,000) and leisure and hospitality (219,000) all employ more, according to state figures.
And most Atlanta manufacturing jobs aren’t that specialized. The food industry, for example, makes up one of every six manufacturing jobs.
“Food processing is the largest manufacturing sector in this country,” said Howard, whose parents started Suzanna’s Kitchen a half-century ago near Georgia Tech. “Somebody’s either baking bread, making pies, blending spices or making hamburger patties.”
Dozens of food and beverage companies, slaughterhouses and chicken plants dot the Atlanta region from Coca-Cola downtown (9,000-plus employees) to Earthgrains Baking in Decatur (525 jobs) to American Proteins in Cumming (120 jobs).
The usual reasons attract them: size of consumer market; access to raw materials; logistics network; cheap labor and living. More than 100 food-processing companies have settled or expanded in Georgia over the last eight years, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development, investing upward of $1.4 billion.
Suzanna’s parlayed homemade barbecue and Brunswick stew recipes into a 250-employee, two-factory operation servicing restaurants, schools and hospitals across the country. The recession hammered Suzanna’s: revenues and employees were cut in half.
While low-cost jobs -- Suzanna’s pay starts at $10 an hour -- predominate in Atlanta, the region attracts a rising number of what Brookings labels “very high-tech” jobs that pay, on average, $68,273 a year here. More than 12 percent of the Atlanta’s manufacturing jobs fall into that category. Another 14 percent, like the plasma-blending jobs at Baxter, are qualified as “moderately high tech.”
Georgia’s little-publicized aerospace industry employs roughly 25,000, about one-third of them in Marietta at Lockheed Martin’s plant. Engineered Fabrics makes airplane seat covers in Rockmart, employing 1,000. General Electric constructs propellers in Duluth with 280 workers.
Economic forecasters at Moody’s predicted a 38 percent uptick in aerospace jobs between 2010 and 2015, trailing only the food processing and transportation equipment industries.
“All of the resources we have in Atlanta -- our talent pool, logistics and university system -- are very important,” said Gretchen Corbin, deputy commissioner with the Georgia Department of Economic Development. “(Yet) the majority of our growth comes through our existing industry.”
Landing a Caterpillar or Baxter makes headlines; growing jobs organically typically doesn’t. Companies already located here accounted for 69 percent of the 22,022 jobs added in Georgia last year, according to Corbin’s agency.
Metro Atlanta’s infrastructure woes -- clogged highways and questions about the water supply, in particular -- could concern manufacturers seeking new sites. A transportation tax referendum this summer could mitigate traffic woes, backers say. A federal judge holds Atlanta’s water balance in his hand.
“The food industry is the largest water user,” said Suzanna’s Howard. “Water supply is about the only negative Atlanta has. But we’re in big, big trouble.”
Brookings noted other warning signs. The Midwest has led the South in regaining manufacturing jobs lost in the last decade, for instance.Co-author Wial, while not convinced that trend will continue, said the low-wage, non-union, tax-abatement playbook no longer guarantees manufacturing success in the South.
“Recruiting manufacturers through incentives is not the best way to strengthen the manufacturing base,” the economist said. “And it is certainly not the best way to have a high-wage, innovative manufacturing base that benefits metropolitan areas like Atlanta.”