On a recent visit to Southern Fabricators Inc., Polkton, N.C., l learned how brothers Ken Carpenter Sr. and Everett Carpenter first set up shop in 1968 in a tiny 10,000-sq.-ft. facility that just so happens to be the size of its powder coating department today. Let's just say the company has done well over the years, and the last couple of years, even with the recession, haven't slowed it down.
One of the company's keys to success has been its willingness to take on all sorts of fabricating jobs. If it can be done, Southern Fab will try to make it happen. Such was the case in the early 1970s when a gentleman showed up at the front door asking the Carpenters if they could fabricate boxes for an electrical application. After Ken offered up a "yes," the gentleman went back to his car and retrieved blueprints. As it turns out, the visitor had been charged with finding a fabricating source that could replicate the services of a unionized shop that was to be shuttered in accordance with corporate directives.
That scenario—with different companies closing and new opportunities being found in the South—has been played out hundreds of times since then. That manufacturing migration probably has had as much influence on the loss of manufacturing jobs in the Rust Belt as the shift of work to overseas sources. In both instances, companies are simply chasing cheaper labor dollars.
It continues to this day, with foreign automakers setting up shop all across the South, the latest of which is Volkswagen boarding the Chattanooga Choo Choo to assemble vehicles in the Tennessee town. As many economic development directors will tell you, these assembly facilities also bring suppliers with them, who also set up their own manufacturing facilities in the area. The combined economic impact of the automobile OEM and its supply chain is huge.
All this comes to mind because the U.S. is in the midst of remembering the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, or the War Between the States, as some Southerners might say. Even today, this nation's bloodiest conflict still strikes up clear divisions between this country's citizenry.
Today, on the economic front, the regions are trading verbal barbs instead of shot and cannonballs. In the most general sense, the South claims lower taxes and a less-expensive, hard-working labor pool, and the North boasts of infrastructure advantages and access to a more skilled workforce. Truthfully, states are attacking each other, even if they reside on the same side of the Mason-Dixon Line.
When it comes to the chase for manufacturing jobs, this "conflict" has opened up on all fronts. All states—from sea to shining sea—want the well-paying jobs associated with manufacturing, and they will act aggressively to recruit them.
But forgive me if I still think of it as a North-versus-South tussle. Great differences exist between those who eat stuffing and the others who eat dressing at Thanksgiving, and I can't get it out of my head—being a native of Louisiana who lives in the Chicago suburbs. During my travels I've witnessed talented metal fabricators in both the North and South—all of whom would be positive additions to any supply chain.
Let's just call this effort to attract the world's manufacturing companies a "civil" contest. Each region can celebrate its differences, and the country can continue to benefit from this diversity.