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Charleston Business

State of the Low Country: Boeing Big Draw For Aerospace Suppliers

May 10, 2018 09:00AM ● By Makayla Gay

By Brian Sherman

There’s no doubt that the aerospace industry in the Lowcountry, the state of South Carolina, and the entire Southeastern United States took a major step forward when Boeing opened for business in North Charleston in 2011. But there’s more to the aerospace sector along the Carolina coast than the huge company that builds three versions of the 787 Dreamliner at its plant near the Charleston International Airport.

“Boeing is huge and a big name, but 74 percent of the aerospace companies have fewer than five employees,” said Adrianne Beasley, director of aerospace initiatives for the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness, a public/private partnership that focuses on incubating specific industry clusters across the state of South Carolina. “There are a large number of small companies, and we’re going to see more.”

One reason the number of small aerospace companies is expected to grow in the Lowcountry, of course, is that they will be serving the needs of Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company.

“Suppliers in the Charleston area will become approved suppliers for Boeing and others that support Boeing,” Beasley pointed out. “This will grow a very large ecosystem of firms that want to be close to Boeing.”

According to Lindsay Leonard, senior director of national strategy and engagement for Boeing South Carolina, the company does business with 290 suppliers and vendors in South Carolina, 70 of them in the Charleston area. She pointed out, however, that Boeing’s suppliers don’t necessarily have to locate nearby.

“We have specific schedules, quality, and delivery requirements that our suppliers must meet. However, geographic locations are not part of that mix,” she said. “If suppliers decide to relocate to South Carolina, that is their choice. It is not a Boeing-imposed requirement.”

Leonard said Boeing has invested more than $2 billion in land, facilities, infrastructure, and tooling in South Carolina since breaking ground in 2009, adding that the company has invested more than $37 million with South Carolina nonprofit organizations during that time.

According to figures provided by the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness, nearly 54,000 people work in the aerospace industry in South Carolina at more than 400 civilian companies and four military aviation facilities.

Workforce development is a major factor in the growth of the aerospace industry in the Lowcountry. ReadySC, part of the South Carolina Technical College System, works with the state’s 16 technical colleges in an effort to meet the needs of companies operating in and considering coming to the Palmetto State. ReadySC has played a role in training more than 292,863 employees since it was established in 1961 and worked with 82 companies in fiscal year 2016-2017.

“Trident Technical College and readySC really put together an incredible training package when Boeing was moving and building in Charleston,” Beasley said. “They trained people with the skills Boeing needed so they could hit the ground running and not have to import a workforce from elsewhere.”

Construction is currently underway in North Charleston on Trident Technical College’s South Carolina Aeronautical Training Center, which will prepare thousands of students for high-paying jobs at Boeing, its suppliers, and other companies in the Lowcountry. More than half the funding for the training center, $48,441,348, will come from the state, while Charleston County contributed $18.75 million in cash and another $337,000 in road work. The city of North Charleston put $1 million into the project, while Trident Tech has committed $8.125 million in cash and land. The remaining $80,124,908 will come from federal grants and private contributions, according to Trident Tech President Mary Thornley.

The Aeronautical Training Center is expected to open its doors in the fall of 2019.

“South Carolina has a decade to do what Washington state has had a century to do – create an aeronautical culture,” Thornley commented. “This center will be a concrete manifestation of that culture. It will inspire young people who visit to dream of a future career in aerospace.”

“We need to spark an interest in aviation early, and then support that interest by providing a path to training and to the good jobs that are available in our state,” she added.

Trident Technical College, with campuses in North Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Moncks Corner, and downtown Charleston, already offers education and training in areas including aircraft maintenance technology, aircraft assembly technology, avionics maintenance technology, and industrial and engineering technology.

It’s obvious that the aerospace industry has had a major effect on the Lowcountry economy, especially since Boeing arrived in the Charleston area. According to Beasley, the latest report prepared by the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness indicates that for every 10 aerospace jobs, an additional 13 jobs are created.

“We see such a large multiplier. We’re going to see it really affect logistics and the supply chain,” she said. “We’re rolling out our new economic impact study this fall. We’ll be looking at the entire supply chain. We’re very confident that the economic impact of the aerospace industry is only going to go up.”

She added that the industry is doing well in the Charleston area and across the state, “really outpacing North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia.” She pointed out that from 2010 to 2012, private sector employment in the aerospace industry grew by 15.5 percent in South Carolina, compared with 10.7 percent in North Carolina and 2.5 percent in Alabama. That figure actually fell by 2.3 percent in Georgia, according to the Council on Competitiveness.

Beasley added that the busy port of Charleston is also a big reason for the growth of the industry.

“The port is a huge draw,” she said.

Boeing, meanwhile, continues to attract vendors and suppliers that want to do business with the aerospace giant that chose to establish a major presence in the Lowcountry in 2009.

“Boeing’s decision to come to South Carolina involved a variety of elements coming together, including supportive state and local governments; elected officials; business leaders; community and education training institutions; a capable, available, and motivated workforce; a favorable business environment; and the ability of the site, community, and infrastructure to absorb potential growth over time,” Leonard said.