The manufacturing myth: the governor wants to rebuild the economy by putting people back to work making things. But the numbers might not add up.

Author:Martin, Edward
 
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In the hills east of Asheville, Heywood Road wends alongside modest houses, through a stand of pine, oak and hemlock, and past a lake where mists rise on cold mornings. A few hundred yards before it ends, a building sprawls over almost 7 acres of what could pass for a suburban college campus. Built more than 30 years ago, Eaton Corp.'s plant in Arden is not new, though what's taking place inside is: a subtle but striking change in the Tar Heel economy.

It's second shift, and Daniel Kin's workplace is clean, bright and quiet. "I'm a tester," he says. "I test electronic switch gear to make sure there're no frayed wires or anything and that everything works properly." The sophisticated equipment he and some 1,000 co-workers build controls motors and other devices used by companies throughout the world. Based in Ireland, Eaton's U.S. headquarters is in Cleveland.

Kirl, 28, is a 2003 graduate of Charles D. Owen High School in Black Mountain. Strong in math, he made a decision that would have surprised many classmates. "When I graduated, honestly, if you mentioned going into manufacturing, you were looked down on." He has three associate degrees in electronic- and computer-engineering fields from Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and plans to get a bachelor's in electrical engineering from N.C. State University in Raleigh. Kiri and his co-workers, many of who have at least two-year degrees, have cast their lot with manufacturing.

So have Gov. Pat McCrory and his commerce secretary Sharon Decker, who have just completed their first year of overhauling how North Carolina courts jobs. "Manufacturing is one of our real priority clusters," Decker says. In an interview for the 2014 North Carolina Economic Development Go hie, McCrory buttressed her point: "The manufacturing industry, some had given up on that and figured it is gone forever. We disagree."

But they are not pinning their hopes on just any kind of manufacturing, certainly not the kind wrought in mills and factories in places like Enka, where Kirl worked for his grandfather selling and servicing fire extinguishers. For several years before that business was sold in 2011, it had lost customers in traditional industries as they boarded up plants and dumped workers. "That made me start thinking I needed more of an education." While he has been investing in his future, elected officials are betting millions of dollars in incentives, including infrastructure, tax breaks and other inducements--not to mention their own political capital--that companies such as Eaton can add thousands more employees to the state's 4.6 million workforce. A key plank in McCrory's 2012 campaign platform was to reduce the state's stubborn unemployment rate, among the nation's highest.

Buried in workforce statistics, however, are questions about how much impact modern manufacturing can make on employment and whether the governor and his administration can meet the expectations they're creating. In a blitz last fall that be called Manufacturing Day, McCrory announced five new or expanded factory operations, totaling some 380 jobs. One was in Greensboro, where Columbiana High Tech LLC makes nuclear-fuel containers and will add 40 to 50 welders, machinists and engineers to the 115 it employs there by the end of this year. "This area was built on manufacturing," the governor said, repeating what became a mantra of his first year in office. "We can't live off the service industry alone." But he didn't dwell on the larger context: Analysts say the Triad lost 37,000 jobs between the start of the recession in 2007 and the end of 2013, all but 7,000 in manufacturing.

Statewide as well, industry hunters heralded small gains...

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