Spokane Journal of Business

The Journal’s View: Manufacturing sector’s role confirmed in critical time

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One of the subtextual lessons of the COVID-19 era is the important role manufacturing plays in the Inland Northwest economy and how the sector needs to remain a primary driver of economic development.

The Association of Washington Businesses, more quietly than usual, is rolling through the state this week on its 2020 Manufacturing Week tour. Due to the precautionary physical distancing requirements we’ve all become accustomed to, AWB isn’t taking its bus around the state and can’t visit in person many of the prominent makers of goods that it typically frequents.

Instead, the organization is livestreaming events from different spots around Washington, including from downtown Spokane earlier this week.

The method is different, but the message is the same. Manufacturing is essential to the state’s economy to be vibrant. Statewide, according to U.S. Department of Labor figures, just over 7,600 manufacturers employ more than 280,000 people, with the sector accounting for about 10% of all jobs statewide.

In Spokane, according to the most recent figures from the state Employment Security Department, 550 manufacturers employ nearly 16,000 people at an average annual wage of $54,500, providing good, often high-tech jobs that don’t always require a four-year degree.

But those numbers are true in good times. What’s arguably more telling about the importance of the manufacturing industry is how many of those companies have been able to pivot quickly to make personal protection equipment.

Companies like Spokane Valley-based Mountain Dog Sign Co. swiveled to start making counter barriers for retailers, which installed them as a safety measure for both customers and workers. In other instances, makers like Royal Upholstery Inc. shifted gears to manufacture masks in the weeks before they became a government-mandated necessity in public.

There was essentially no market for such products in a pre-pandemic world, but Inland Northwest manufacturers that pivoted to help meet near-instantaneous, ubiquitous demand played a part in enabling the economy to reopen to the extent it has been allowed to return.

In the near future, other Spokane-based manufacturers, in theory, could play a part in putting the COVID-19 era to rest. Spokane Regional Health District health officer Dr. Bob Lutz has said Jubilant HollisterStier, a maker of sterile-injectable drugs that has a big facility in East Spokane, could play a key role in manufacturing a vaccine or treatment when one comes available.

Trumpeting the importance of manufacturing now, however, is occurring under a cloud of reports that Boeing Co. plans to move its 787 Dreamliner jet production to South Carolina, despite the state’s generous incentives for aerospace manufacturers.

Such a decision, if executed, would result in a loss of 1,000 jobs in the sector in the state. The biggest immediate concern for the Spokane business community is the effect on Boeing suppliers, dozens of which operate here and already faced challenges as the airline industry has struggled during the pandemic.

But current developments, positive and negative, are important reminders of the manufacturing sector’s relevance in the state and the need to foster its growth, during the current recession and as we emerge from it.

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