ville has remained focused on manufacturing. Major global manufacturers with
outposts here include BMW, ABB, Fluor,
Michelin, Bosch, and General Electric’s
power division. As local factories have
adopted increasingly computerized and
automated techniques, the region has
evolved into one of the country’s leading
centers of advanced manufacturing.
The payoff for Greenville has been a
strong economy by many conventional
measurements. Though it sank with the
rest of the country during the recession,
it has bounced back since. Unemployment
today is below the national rate at 4. 7 percent, and median household income and
property values have risen in recent years.
Between 2010 and 2014, $1.5 billion was
invested in businesses in the county,
which added 8,947 new jobs. New businesses are being created here faster than
anywhere else in the southeastern U.S.,
according to data tracked by the South
Carolina Department of Commerce.
But there is a downside to this transformation of Greenville’s economy.
Increasingly, these modern factories are
dominated by machines, employing far
fewer people than textiles once did. For
those workers still on the factory floor,
jobs are changing too, requiring new
skills. Those without such training are
being left behind.
In 2004, the Greenville area’s per cap-
ita income was 83 percent of the U.S. aver-
age. Today it’s fallen to 80 percent of the
national average. The number of people
collecting food stamps has doubled over
the past decade. Even in this boom, 21. 5
percent of children in Greenville live in
poverty—and the county has tradition-
ally been one of the toughest places in the
country for a child to climb out of poverty,
according to research led by academics at
Stanford and Harvard. That research did
not draw specific conclusions about what
has created this problem in Greenville,
but if trends seen across the country also
apply here, its origins likely lie in a lack
of opportunity caused by factors such as
higher rates of poverty, economic segrega-
tion, poor housing conditions, and crime.
In some ways Greenville exemplifies
the future for communities built around
advanced manufacturing. The changes in
factories and factory work under way in
manufacturing centers across the U.S. and
Europe, and even beginning to accelerate
in once low-cost manufacturing meccas
such as China, are boosting local economies, but they’re also demanding that
workers make the transition to jobs that
require far more computer and technical
skills. In an election year in which economic dissatisfaction, particularly in traditionally blue-collar cities, has been a
dominant theme, Greenville illuminates
what can be expected—and what can’t—
from a factory-focused economy in a digital, automated age.
When politicians refer to manufacturing
as a source of numerous jobs, they’re talking more about what manufacturing once
was than what it is today. Modern manufacturing is a story of increasing output
but slowing employment growth. That’s
because investment in automation and
software has doubled the output per U.S.
manufacturing worker over the past two
decades. During that period, overall manufacturing output grew by 40 percent,
despite a nearly 30 percent decline in the
number of manufacturing jobs.
Computerization and modern production have created new types of factory
jobs, many of which pay more than the old
ones. They just haven’t created as many of
them. As a result, competition for the new
jobs can be intense. And just as Greenville has had to adapt to a different type
of manufacturing, its people have had to
adjust to a new type of factory work.
When Shauntae Stewart decided to go
back to work after 12 years at home with
her children, her first job was working as
a contractor at the BMW plant, inspecting
parts from suppliers as they were about
to be installed on the assembly line. The
work paid $9 an hour.
It wasn’t long before Stewart quit to
join a program, sponsored by a group
called Greenville Works, that pays for
workers’ training in skills needed by local
manufacturers. She learned to operate a
machine that makes parts based on computer instructions. Now she earns $24
an hour at Baldor Electric, a division of
ABB that makes electric motors, where
she spends her days operating a lathe and
a grinder, reading the blueprints for the
parts and checking that the machine is
making them to the proper specifications.
Stewart grew up in Greenville. Her
aunt used to work in the textile mills.
Now she’s become a kind of advanced-manufacturing evangelist. “I see a waitress at the Waffle House who doesn’t look
satisfied, or someone at the gas station.
I give them my name and number. I tell
them you don’t have to stay here in this
dead-end job,” she says.
But making that transition can be difficult. When the economy began to improve
following the recession of 2007 to 2009,
many people who had worked in manufacturing and lost their jobs had trouble
getting back into factory work. They either
lacked the requisite credentials or were
not familiar with the newer manufacturing technology, explains Amanda Warren,
a counselor who works on employment
readiness at United Ministries, a Greenville nonprofit. Those who were hired were
most likely to get their jobs through contractors, as temporary workers who could
more easily be added or let go.
The stark reality is that the arithmetic is not favorable to people who might
once have worked in manufacturing as a