Clark County manufacturing rides global ebbs, flows

Recovery in county has been tepid for the industry that relies on consumer spending, oil prices and trade

By Brooks Johnson, Columbian Business Reporter

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Thompson Metal Fab was bright, loud and busy on a recent morning as sparks met seams in the company’s vast manufacturing plant. Men and women worked massive machines as their hard hats dotted the cool cavern of heavy industry on Vancouver’s Columbia River waterfront.

If manufacturing is dead or dying, no one has told Thompson.

“I think things are fine. A lot of fabricators are busy,” said Michael Moore, business development manager for Thompson Metal Fab. “Commercial, industrial and residential construction means masons, carpenters and fabricators are doing really well.”

Yet manufacturing remains the only part of Clark County’s jobs mix that isn’t growing significantly. While manufacturing jobs finally started growing again in 2011, the recovery has been tepid. The state Employment Security Department reported last week that manufacturing employment in Clark County is stuck at 12,900 jobs, exactly the same as a year ago.

“The last two years have been up and down” for manufacturing, said the department’s regional economist, Scott Bailey.

There’s no magic “on” switch when it comes to creating manufacturing jobs, which rely on everything from consumer spending to the price of oil and “all that stuff around trade,” Bailey said.

“With manufacturing, it tends to be pretty high in terms of productivity improvements, which you have to do to stay competitive,” he said, “so we’re always going to see some kind of (employment) attrition around that.”

In an industry with such a wide range of local manufacturing employers — such as Frito Lay, Sunlight Supply, the Georgia Pacific paper mill and WaferTech — this economic cycle could bring new life as demand outpaces productivity gains and jobs follow. There are plenty of workers waiting for that to happen, at least.

“The workforce is here. That has never been an issue,” Bailey said.

‘The sweet spot’

Inside Thompson Metal Fab, the noises echoing off the tall ceilings would be familiar to anyone who has been in a shop. There’s just a lot of it at once. And even with all the hubbub, Thompson is not operating at its peak capacity.

“This year will be leaner due to the nature of the business we do,” Moore said. “When the price of a barrel of oil comes back up, we’ll be doing a lot more.”

The company is known for huge projects — handling 1 million-pound gates for The Dalles Dam; fabricating a new Sellwood Bridge that recently opened in Portland — and building oil rigs, such as the one under construction that will eventually go into use in the Arctic Ocean.

About 200 people work at the nearly 80-year-old shop. Its parking lot on Hidden Way is dotted with American-made cars, many of whose owners have worked on American-made metals for decades. Although the company’s workforce swelled to nearly twice its current size during the recession due to the high price of oil, and the demand for drilling rigs and other products, Moore said Thompson is at a sustainable level: capable of growth, sure, but really “at the sweet spot.”

Clark County’s manufacturing ebbs and flows reflect those of the nation as a whole. In 2010, U.S. manufacturing jobs grew for the first time since 1998, and they’ve kept growing, albeit slowly. The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics show 12.3 million people work in the sector, up from the recession-era low of 11.4 million in 2009.

“The U.S. manufacturing industry continued to experience anemic growth nationwide, with only one state — Alaska — having recovered to its prerecession manufacturing employment level,” a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., read.

Productivity, automation, globalization and recessions have sucked the life out of manufacturing since it reached a peak of nearly 20 million jobs in 1979.

The rise of the Chinese economy, argue labor economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson, might have hurt the most.

“Employment has certainly fallen in U.S. industries more exposed to import competition,” they wrote in a paper published in January, “but so too has overall employment in the local labor markets in which these industries were concentrated.”

Bailey said there is “anecdotal evidence” some companies are bringing jobs back from overseas, though any manufacturing growth could be derived from the overall economy or the right market conditions, not just here but around the globe.

For high-tech manufacturers, the local economy is the global economy.

“Our future growth in this area is market-dependent and aligned with the worldwide objectives of our parent company, TSMC in Taiwan,” said Peter White, the manufacturing director at WaferTech in Camas.

He said the chipmaker is adding employees every year “to maintain a stable workforce,” and after 20 years in Clark County, the company is “established and mature.”

Attracting more jobs

Local leaders would love to see more high-tech firms like WaferTech, which bring a plethora of high-paying jobs and can equip employees with specialized skills so highly prized in today’s workforce.

“The common question raised is how to develop high-quality workers to expand or to prepare for the maturing workforce retirements that exists already,” White said. “We planned early in our history to expect to train, from the beginning, the skills to run our equipment at the entry-level employment point.”

The focus on education in and out of school has been well documented, but recruiting new firms can still be tough in a rapidly growing county.

“A lot of land that should have stayed zoned industrial got put into residential,” Bailey said. “That’s a somewhat more difficult issue to take on, having land that’s zoned and serviced and close to transportation.”

Otherwise the county can be slow to respond, perhaps fatally so, when businesses are looking for new homes.

Mike Bomar, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, agreed.

“To ensure the continued success of the industry, we must make sure that we are supporting and protecting the assets that provide us with a competitive advantage,” he said. “This includes maintaining access to reliable, affordable water and power that helps us compete on the international front.”

For employers already here, it also comes down to learning to live with economic highs and lows.

“It’s always cyclical,” said Moore at Thompson Metal Fab.

And like the glow of a welding arc reflecting off a helmet, there’s always a bright side.

“We’re exporting to the Chinese,” he said, “where usually that’s the other way around.”