Manufacturing in the Central Puget Sound

Last week, the Obama Administration announced another big expenditure from the Recovery Act – $2.3 billion in clean technology manufacturing tax credits to not only create jobs but actually spur investment in mass producing clean tech products. How much of that manufacturing will be done here? $0.00.

In fact, the only Washington company that got any money was our good friends at Ramgen, but it was to produce their exciting new carbon capture technology in upstate New York. When you see that, it recalls the conventional wisdom you always hear about our business climate being bad for manufacturing. But is that true?

When you look at the numbers, we’re actually doing pretty well. Close to 200,000 people are employed in manufacturing in our region, which represents over 10% of the workforce. Of course, a big portion of that is Boeing and related aerospace manufacturing, and we know how that’s going. You also hear about this a lot in the life sciences, where a great new biotech discovery will be made here…only to have the production happen in Oregon or California.

The problem is that we have high land costs, relatively high labor costs and a B&O tax, among other issues, which make it difficult for us to be cost competitive. But we also have some advantages, particularly when it comes to highly skilled, high tech manufacturing; that is, we’ve got a great, well trained workforce that can do the job and an advanced manufacturing workforce development system in place that can generate additional recruits. And, increasingly, some of those folks are finding themselves unemployed, which means there’s a collection of people who could do clean tech manufacturing that are sitting around waiting for an opportunity.

Whenever I hear that this isn’t a good region for manufacturing, I immediately want to show how that’s wrong. And there’s plenty of great businesses in the region doing good work that I can use as examples, and organizations like CAMPS that are helping them along. To me, it’s a question of matching existing resources (empty manufacturing space, trained workers, all the incredible R&D coming out of our universities) with the capital and the innovation to make it happen. Will it be electric vehicle batteries, solar panels or smart meters, I don’t know. But the burden falls on a number of organizations from university tech transfer offices to chambers/economic development councils to the state department of commerce to identify companies that have a product that is being developed here and then help them find a way to build it here.

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