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Columbia Business Monthly

Aerospace: Leveling the Plane Field

Oct 02, 2017 10:44AM ● By Makayla Gay

By John Jeter

Michel van Tooren likens South Carolina’s aerospace industry to building a championship soccer team.

“The best teams have always had to build their own players,” says van Tooren, director of the University of South Carolina’s McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research. “You have to build your own club. You have to grow your own workforce. You can blend in other players, but you have to build your own bloodline.”

Since Boeing’s 2009 announcement to move to South Carolina—a $1 billion investment now—aerospace today accounts for $19 billion in economic impact here (or about 10 percent less than the entire nation’s pet-food industry). In the Midlands, at least two major global firms, GKN and Technetics, are suppliers.

In 2015, GKN, the British aerospace- and automotive-components industry giant with $10.5 billion in 2016 revenues, opened a 126,000-square-foot site in Orangeburg County. Ninety employees make lipskins, aluminum engine casings, for Boeing jets, including the 777X. In 2012, GKN employed 145 people for an assembly site. Investments through next year: $42 million.

“While the Upstate and Charleston are growing rapidly, the Midlands is in a good position for aerospace growth,” says Todd Sharpley, GKN’s Orangeburg site manager.

Just before GKN leased the Orangeburg site for the lipskins, Sharpley says it had to clear out pigeons. Today, the plant features a 40-foot-tall rolling furnace that puts out a 16-foot-diameter finished part, among the facility’s dozen other processes.

So count property and infrastructure improvements, too, in addition to creating jobs that pay about $70,000, nearly 40 percent higher than average wages in other Palmetto State sectors.

“On the assembly side,” Sharpley says, “we find a very eager workforce, and the availability of labor is strong. On the technical side, it takes more searching because we’re looking for specific skills and, there, we don’t typically have to go too far, but it does take more time and effort to search.”

Gilles Hudon, president of Technetics Group, which makes metal seals for the aerospace, nuclear, automotive, and other industries, says his company works to attract young people to fill increasing job vacancies for technicians and engineers.

“We spend a lot of time, even at the high school level, letting young men and women know what we’re doing, so we have that workforce coming up through the ranks, and we make sure our needs are met,” says Hudon, from his Columbia office of Technetics, a subsidiary of Charlotte-based EnPro Industries. “I think our state is well-positioned on that front; however, there’s never enough.”

Still, he adds, “Most of our talent is local.” Of Technetics’ 1,000 employees, 100 are in Columbia, where the company’s 35,000-square-foot facility was part of an investment upwards of $10 million when it opened in 2011.

While Boeing soars in Charleston and Lockheed Martin takes off in Greenville, Hudon says aerospace in the Midlands is “probably not as deep as we would like it to be. Unless you’ve got a big OEM presence, either on the engine side or the assembly side—the Boeings or the Airbuses of this world—it’s very difficult to justify a sub-tier within an area.”

Nevertheless, he compares University of South Carolina’s role in advancing aerospace with Clemson University’s relationship with cars.

From education to supply chain to technological advancement, Hudon sees long-term growth. Of Technetics’ five business units, one of which is nuclear energy, he sees semiconductors and aerospace with the biggest growth potential here in the next 15 to 20 years.

“The appeal going forward in aerospace-slash-space-slash-defense is tremendous because, if you think about business 25, 30 years down the road, the world is changing, and it’s changing very, very, very quickly,” he says. “When Volvo states that as of 2019, they will no longer produce new cars with combustion engines—it’s all going to be electric and hybrids—there’s a disruption that’s happening. We need to keep in the forefront.”

Disruption demands dedication that delivers.

“We’ve grown in just the last year,” says Adrianne Beasley, director of Aerospace Initiatives for the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness. “Exports went up 43 percent in the last two years. Which is enormous.”

Of the state’s 400-plus civilian aerospace-related companies in South Carolina, which employ more than 17,000 people, Beasley estimates that about 30 percent of those are in the Midlands.

She then cites the nimble response from the state’s technical-college system, USC, and the McNair Center to the industry’s demand for highly skilled workers, including those with heftier degrees. The McNair Center, founded in 2011, offers the state’s only master’s program in aerospace engineering and engineering management.

“Sometimes, getting a new program off the ground can be slow, but the technical colleges are really able to quickly adapt and roll out new certificate programs,” she says. “South Carolina does an excellent job of creating customized training. Our technical colleges are very, very involved in the industry cluster. It’s amazing how incredibly plugged in they are to what the industry in their region needs.”

That, and private sector juice: namely, Siemens Corp.’s massive $628 million in-kind grant to McNair, announced in June, to provide computers, robotics, and unlimited software licensing, a cleared-for-takeoff boost to an industry whose workforce needs, observers say, start with homegrown K-12 education.

“You have to train them yourself,” McNair’s van Tooren says. “Upgrade schools. Attract more talent. Train the trainers. You have to go from a bit more traditional academic environment to a more public-private partnership with universities and companies.”

Of a jetliner’s $250 million price tag, van Tooren says as much as 50 percent is in aluminum and carbon-fiber parts—in other words, highly labor-intensive business demanding higher-than-average skills.

“We need to make sure we have the people who are involved in the latest materials and structures to keep that going, that’s what we try to focus on,” he says. “You have to keep investing. You have to keep moving forward. That’s why the companies are still here. I think that’s what we have to do to help grow here, that’s the goal, and education is everything.”