Hickory Is Reinventing Itself
At the height of Hickory’s furniture boom in the 1990s, another boom was beginning: technology. The rising popularity of the Internet led to rising demand for access. Even as the dot-com bubble imploded, telecommunications kept flourishing, and Hickory had become a hub for it. By 2000, Hickory produced 40 percent of fiber-optic cable in the world
. Rather than being content with furniture and textiles, the region had—wisely, in retrospect—expanded its reach and diversified into fiber optics.
Today, two multinational fiber-optic cable corporations, both reliant on trade and globalization, call Hickory their home: CommScope and Corning Optical Communications. Although Corning is set to move its headquarters to a new building in Charlotte
, this won’t affect the hundreds of jobs at their manufacturing plant.
This sort of capital-intensive manufacturing produced safer, higher-skill, and higher-pay jobs than the ones in the furniture industry. Crippling hand injuries from furniture machines were not uncommon in my hometown, and they didn’t just cause short-term job loss but also led to a long-term inability to find work in other fields.
Statewide, North Carolina is now far more insulated from “shocks” today because it’s also more diversified. According to Bryan Riley at the Heritage Foundation, for example, while North Carolina’s overall manufacturing gross domestic product rose
by nearly $10 billion from 2000 to 2009, textiles, apparel, and furniture dropped from just over $10 billion to $5 billion. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis
estimates that my state’s manufacturing output rose from about $63.5 billion in 1997 to more than $100 billion in 2015, with top industries no longer being textiles or furniture, but computers, chemicals, and food products.
But even our “old” industries aren’t dead: Riley notes that
“from 1999 to 2007, before the global economic downturn, exports of North Carolina textiles, apparel, and furniture increased by 25.5 percent. By 2009, exports of North Carolina textiles, apparel, and furniture totaled $2 billion. In fact, after adjusting for inflation, output per worker in North Carolina’s textile and apparel industries increased by more than 60 percent between 2000 and 2009.” Fewer workers, more output, and higher pay—that’s productivity in action.
Manufacturing Is Doing Well, Too
Meanwhile, North Carolina furniture manufacturers have transitioned into custom, high-end products—just the type of things you’d expect to be made in the wealthy and developed U.S. economy. Also, as is often the case with protectionism, efforts to insulate the industry from low-end import competition just didn’t work
Certainly, manufacturing jobs have declined here (as they have nationally and around the world), but the state’s unemployment rate is now at or below the national average
and our labor force participation has bucked the national trend by actually adding 100,000 workers in the last year. Remarkably, the Hickory region now boasts a 4.6 percent unemployment rate
—lower than the state unemployment rate of 4.9 percent and lower than in some of the state’s larger cities like Fayetteville and Greensboro.
These trends in some ways reflect manufacturing productivity across America: a recent study by Ball State University, for example,
found that national manufacturing output between 1990 and 2013 rose by nearly $1 trillion, while nearly 90 percent of lost manufacturing jobs from 2000-2010 were caused not by trade, but by productivity gains. In other words: American manufacturers can produce more but with fewer workers, and a job that today requires only one worker might once have required five. Meanwhile, outside of manufacturing, the country has gained tens of millions of jobs over the same period. The Journal
, for some reason, ignores all of this.