Not long after Paula McWhirter-Buck graduated from Burnsville’s East Yancey High School in 1974, her mother laid down the law: It was time to get a job.
So McWhirter-Buck found work as an industrial sewing machine operator for Blue Bell Inc.’s Micaville factory, which made Lady Wrangler blue jeans.
“Most of my friends, most of my classmates and most of the people that I know either worked there or at one of the other manufacturing plants in the area [including Glen Raven Mills in Burnsville],” she says. “That was pretty much the industry here then. It was all textiles.”
For generations of Western North Carolinians like McWhirter-Buck, textile plants and other manufacturing companies provided a steady paycheck in exchange for a hard day’s work. And some of the area’s larger firms, including American Enka, Beacon Manufacturing, the Ecusta Paper Corp. and DuPont, did more than that, creating a sense of community through mill villages, company stores, industrial league baseball teams, social events and more.
The number of manufacturing jobs in WNC and nationally peaked in the late 1970s, just a few years after McWhirter-Buck began working at Blue Bell. Then came a long, steady decline, driven by new technology and cheaper foreign competition. The Blue Bell factory, after a couple of name changes, was shuttered in 2007.
“Forty years ago, someone could drop out of high school, go get a job at Beacon Manufacturing, buy a home, raise their family, send their kids to college,” says Nathan Ramsey, director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board. “That was not unheard of. Probably there were thousands of cases where that actually did happen. That’s no longer possible today.”
Yet WNC manufacturing is far from dead. With about 22,000 total employees, manufacturing still ranks as the fifth-largest industry in the region encompassing Buncombe, Henderson, Haywood, Madison and Transylvania counties, according to Ramsey’s data. It also is the third-fastest growing employment sector.
Lightcast, a firm that gathers labor market data, says the Asheville region had 880 manufacturing job postings as of July. Ramsey thinks that number is a significant undercount and estimates that job openings in the sector exceed 1,200.
Opportunities abound, and these jobs generally come with decent pay: Current entry-level starting wages run $18-$22 per hour, above the $17.70 living wage rate recognized by nonprofit Just Economics of WNC. But local employment experts say it can nevertheless be a challenge to interest young people in the field. What’s driving this mismatch between the demand for workers and the supply of employees?
The first obstacle to attracting manufacturing employees, says Kevin Kimrey, is simply making them aware that the jobs exist. “If you go to Hendersonville or go to Asheville, you would never think there were even two manufacturers in either town, but they’re tucked way back up in the woods all over the place around here,” says the director of economic and workforce development at A-B Tech.
Among the area’s largest manufacturing employers are power management company Eaton Corp. and Jabil Inc.’s pharmaceutical equipment factory, both in Arden, and vehicle components producer Meritor in Fletcher. Food and beverage industry companies such as microbreweries, cideries and kombucha makers also are plentiful.
“Manufacturing is not as glamorous as the high-tech industries and doesn’t get as much publicity, but it does provide many good jobs for the local communities,” says Jerry Krug, general manager for truck industrialization with Meritor, which employs about 650 people at its Fletcher plant.
Brittany Brady, president of the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development, notes that her county alone holds over 130 manufacturing firms. But because they are often located in out-of-the-way places or have unfamiliar names, prospective employees can overlook them when job hunting. “You might drive by a building every day and have no idea what they do,” she says.
When workers are aware of manufacturing jobs, Brady continues, they may have inaccurate perceptions of what the work entails. “Their perception of manufacturing is really stuck in the 1900s,” she says; many may envision dark, dirty sweatshops rather than the clean, bright, high-tech facilities of 2022.
The experience of Kaylee Smith, 26, bears that out. A 2018 Brevard College graduate, she began working for UPM Raflatac in March. The company, which makes self-adhesive label materials for product and information labeling, has plants in Mills River and Fletcher.
“My first time ever on a manufacturing floor was when I came here for my interview,” says Smith, who works as an environmental health and safety coordinator. “I had no idea of what it would be like, but seeing it and meeting everyone totally changed my mind on what a job like this would be. It’s a fast-paced environment, but it’s orderly, and they’re paying attention to the wellness of the employees.”
To tackle these perception problems, in 2012 Brady’s organization launched Made in Henderson County, which educates area educators and students about manufacturing careers. The program has since evolved to include an apprenticeship with Blue Ridge Community College. Under the apprenticeship, open to high school graduates 18 and older, participants work for an area company four days per week, go to class one day a week, and graduate with a journeyman’s certificate in mechatronics.
Among companies that have participated in the program are Arden’s Linamar North Carolina, a machining manufacturer; East Flat Rock’s WestRock Co., which produces cardboard packaging; and Kimberly-Clark, which makes materials for adult and feminine care products at its Berkeley Mills plant in Hendersonville. “Ultimately, we want people in our community to picture themselves in a manufacturing career,” Brady says.
Skills to succeed
Made in Henderson County’s educational component addresses another aspect of manufacturing’s workforce challenges. Kimrey of A-B Tech says almost all jobs in the sector now require some level of training beyond high school, although not necessarily a college degree.
A-B Tech offers programs that run anywhere from six to 16 weeks and allow students to earn credentials in machining, production or a variety of other technical tasks for modern manufacturing. Such classes typically can accommodate seven to 16 students each.
The college’s efforts have been boosted by the 2020 announcement of a $650 million turbine airfoil production facility to be built by aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney in Asheville, which the company says will employ 800 people by 2027. Kimrey says enrollment in A-B Tech programs “has just been out of the roof” since the news, similar to bumps he observed after manufacturing announcements by GE Aviation in 2018 and New Belgium Brewing Co. a decade ago.
In both 2021 and 2022, A-B Tech’s Advanced Manufacturing Center served at least 500 students in its short-term continuing education classes. In 2019, before the Pratt & Whitney announcement, it served 265 students.
“We’re bringing all these new manufacturing jobs, but in order to do that, you have to have a skilled and talented workforce,” says Pratt & Whitney spokesperson Cataldo Perrone. To that end, the company has partnered with A-B Tech, Blue Ridge Community College, Haywood Community College, Western Carolina University and others to provide training for employees. Buncombe County has also collaborated with A-B Tech to build a new $5 million training center specifically for manufacturing workers.
Perrone says the company incentivizes workers by paying for ongoing education and allowing opportunities for advancement.
“For instance, you could start out on the shop floor. You like the company, you like the environment, but you want to get more into management or a supervisor role,” he says. “We pay upfront for you to go take these classes, as long as you come back and work for the company and use what you learned.”
Jeremias Bustos got certifications in electrical automation and composites from A-B Tech after hearing about the Pratt & Whitney plant. He has since landed a job in maintenance for Smoky Mountain Machining.
Bustos says operating a computerized numerical control machine — essentially a programmable manufacturing robot — is a far cry from the days when machining involved hot, dangerous work like pouring oil. “It’s not like people think,” he says.
Looking to the past
As manufacturing work itself has changed, so too has the social context around that work. Jennie Jones Giles, who teaches a class on Henderson County history at Blue Ridge Community College, points to the evolution of the Balfour Mills cotton processor into Kimberly-Clark’s Hendersonville plant.
A thriving village, complete with homes for employees, a drugstore, a barbershop, a beauty salon and a company baseball team, once surrounded Balfour Mills. “It was a tremendously strong sense of community,” says Giles, who teaches a class on Henderson County history at Blue Ridge Community College. “Everybody knew everybody; people helped each other. They all went to the churches together, whether it was Methodist or Baptist.”
Balfour Mills became Berkeley Mills in 1946 when Kimberly-Clark purchased the plant. The community survived for a time, and the Berkeley Spinners baseball team won championships in the Western North Carolina Industrial League against teams from Beacon, Ecusta and other plants during the 1950s. “I’d go interview these guys, and all they wanted to talk about was their baseball games, where everybody in the community would show up,” Giles says.
But the team folded after the 1961 season, and eventually the mill houses were razed. The community was gone, just one example of a story that played out in countless places throughout the region in the late 20th century.
While the days of company stores and factory baseball teams are over, employers see some parallels to contemporary issues when they look back at the past. Companies from various industries, for instance, say a lack of affordable housing is an impediment to attracting and retaining workers.
“We joke with Kimberly-Clark, ‘You had the workforce housing solution in 1920,'” says Brady of the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development. “Employers are talking about, ‘Do we go back to that employer-type housing?'”
Pratt & Whitney’s Perrone says his company also thinks it’s important for workers to be part of the community. To that end, it hosts monthly volunteer programs with nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity, Asheville GreenWorks and MANNA FoodBank.
“Every employee that goes through onboarding actually will take part in a volunteer community activity,” he says. “So it’s something from day one we introduce.”
Kimrey says successful employers in the region try to create a positive culture in order to attract workers in a highly competitive market.
“We’re not going to have a company store and an employer that builds you houses,” he says. “But they can offer things like flex time, incredible benefits and just treating people well.”