© 2020 WKSU
Public Radio News for Northeast Ohio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Multinational Manufacturing Giants Opening More Plants In South Carolina

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's time now for Hanging On.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I think most people hate to think of themselves as middle-class.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You have what you need but maybe not everything you want.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have a car. But we live in an apartment. That's middle-class.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: If you add a boat, then you're not middle-class anymore. That's what changes it right there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The middle class are families who are earning six figures.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: $30,000, $35,000, probably.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: That means me. And it means I'm in trouble (laughter).

MARTIN: On this Labor Day weekend, we're going to take you to one place in this country where factory jobs are increasing, South Carolina. Their multinational manufacturing giants are opening plants and expanding. South Carolina Public Radio's Alexandra Olgin reports.

ALEXANDRA OLGIN, BYLINE: Workers on yellow tricycles with baskets full of tools ride across the shiny concrete floor of a Mercedes-Benz van assembly plant in North Charleston, S.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE)

OLGIN: This is where engines and transmissions are being put into vans that have been shipped here from Germany. This plant, with 230 workers, is on track to more than double in size by 2020. Ground has already been broken for the expansion.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Into the dirt - 1, 2, 3.

OLGIN: South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, along with Mercedes executives in black hardhats pushed shovels into soil earlier this summer for the half-billion-dollar project.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: Mercedes-Benz vans chose South Carolina to be their only spot in the United States to manufacture these vans of excellence.

OLGIN: Mercedes-Benz is just one of several international companies with plants in the state. BMW has a large facility in Spartanburg. And Volvo is building a factory close to Charleston. Large domestic manufacturers like Boeing have also moved to South Carolina.

In all, the state has nearly 240,000 workers in the manufacturing sector, a 16-percent increase in just six years. So why is the state with less than 5 million people attracting so much business? One reason - state-backed worker training programs.

Consultant Mark Sweeney negotiates with states on behalf of companies looking to relocate. He says South Carolina's network of technical colleges is a big draw.

MARK SWEENEY: We interview a lot of companies as we are evaluating locations. And we have yet to hear a single company saying anything negative about that particular program. It's very, very effective.

OLGIN: There's another big factor. South Carolina has the lowest union membership in the country, with only 2 percent of its workers organized. Union officials say that for a Boeing machinist, wages are considerably lower than in Washington state, where aircraft workers are largely unionized.

And South Carolina has other advantages, the Charleston port, good weather and elected leaders who, in recent years, have stayed away from the polarizing social issues that have hurt North Carolina's reputation with some businesses.

And then there are the tax breaks for big employers. For example, Boeing has gotten tax incentives estimated to be worth nearly $1 billion over time.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRCRAFT)

OLGIN: But all those tax breaks and fast growth can have a downside. Many people complain about a lack of state spending on roads to keep pace with the increase in commuters.

CHRIS JONES: When the plant first opened, it wasn't so bad. At any time now, it's really, really congested.

OLGIN: That's 43-year-old Chris Jones. He's an aircraft inspector at Boeing. State lawmakers passed a measure to start funding some road repairs. But critics say it's much less than what is needed.

JONES: The infrastructure here wasn't really prepared for what they have to deal with.

OLGIN: Jones is referring to the Charleston metro area's growth tied to manufacturing. Wells Fargo economists predict that next year, the Palmetto State's economy will grow at nearly double the national rate. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Olgin reporting from Charleston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.