David Peebles works in a glass tower across from Houston’s Galleria mall, a cathedral of consumption, but his attention is focused on the city’s highly industrialized ship channel 30 miles away. “Houston is the Chicago of this era,” says Peebles, who runs the Texas office of Odebrecht, a $45 billion engineering firm based in Brazil. “In the sixties you had to go to Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit. Now Houston is the place for new industry.”
With upward of $35 billion of new refineries, chemical plants and factories planned through 2015 for Houston and the surrounding Gulf Coast, companies like Odebrecht, which runs chemical plants and is working on a new freeway in the area, have converged on the nation’s oil and gas capital. They are part of the reason why the Texas metropolis ranks first on our list of the best large cities for manufacturing.
Houston, with 255,000 manufacturing jobs, is not yet the country’s largest industrial center; it still lags behind the longtime leaders Los Angeles, with 360,000 manufacturing jobs, and Chicago, home to 314,000. But it is clearly on a stronger trajectory. Since 2008, Houston’s manufacturing workforce has expanded 5% while Los Angeles has lost 13% of its industrial jobs and Chicago’s factory workforce has shrunk 11%.
Why Manufacturing Matters
Whether America is on the path to a sustainable industrial expansion or is just seeing a weak bounce back has been widely debated, but the recent numbers are impressive. Since 2010 the U.S. has added 647,000 manufacturing jobs. New energy finds have led to the construction and expansion of pipelines and refineries, and has sparked foreign industrial investment reflecting electricity costs that are now well below those in Europe or East Asia. Besides Houston, also ranking high on our big cities list are two other energy towns, No. 5 Oklahoma City and No. 10 Ft. Worth, Texas. Our mid-sized cities list is led by Lafayette, La., with nearby Baton Rouge in 11th place.
Evangelists of the “information economy” may think that industrial jobs are passé, as epitomized by a recent Slate article that recommended that working-class people from places like Detroit should move to areas like Silicon Valley or Boston where they can make money cutting the hair and walking the dogs of high-tech magnates. But the notion that U.S. manufacturing is doomed, and that the jobs are of lower quality than those in high-tech centers, is largely bogus; even in Silicon Valley the majority of new projected jobs are expected to pay under $50,000 annually. In contrast manufacturers pay above-average wages, in some cases due to unionization, but in many others because of the increasing sophisticated skills required by today’s factories.
Although we will likely never see a boom in factory employment on the scale experienced in the last century, the demand for blue-collar skills is projected to increase in future years. Among all professions for non-college graduates, manufacturing skills are most in demand, according to a study by Express Employment Professionals. By 2020, according to BCG and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nation could face a shortfall of around 875,000 machinists, welders, industrial-machinery operators, and other highly skilled manufacturing professionals.
Our research suggests that much of this growth will be in metro areas in the South and the Great Plains that are known for friendly business climates. New industrial investment is tending to go to places that are largely non-union, and feature lower taxes and light regulation. Epitomizing this trend is the No. 2 city on our large metro area list, Nashville-Murfreesboro-Franklin, Tenn., where manufacturing employment is up 6% since 2008. Nashville has become a hotbed for foreign investment in manufacturing, with the expansion of the Nissan facilities in nearby Smyrna, as well as a host of suppliers.
This is occurring, in part, because some large companies are shifting production to America from China in response to rising Chinese wages as well as sometimes unpredictable business conditions there.
Investment inflows, both from overseas and domestic companies, have boosted other standout southern industrial hubs, as well as the smaller metro areas on our mid-sized city list, notably Mobile, Ala. (third place), with its expanding industrially oriented port, and No. 14 Charleston-North Charleston-Summerville, S.C., which has been a beneficiary of major new foreign investment as well as the expanded presence of U.S. aerospace giant Boeing. The South also is home to our No. 1 small manufacturing city, Florence-Muscle Shoals, Ala.
The Resurgence of the Rust Belt
The progress is not confined to the Sun Belt. The resurgence of the U.S. auto industry has revived the economy of Warren-Troy-Farmington Hills, Mich., also known as “automation alley.” The home to many parts suppliers, engineering and tech support for the car industry, this area has enjoyed an impressive 12.7 percent growth in manufacturing jobs since 2008, placing it third on our big cities list.
Detroit, the center of the auto industry, ranks a respectable 16th on our big city list, but the big improvements in the Rust Belt are occurring in mid-sized cities such as Lansing-East Lansing, Mich. (eighth), Grand Rapids (ninth) and Ft. Wayne, Ind. (10th).
But arguably the strongest Rust Belt recovery has occurred in Elkhart-Goshen, Ind., third on our small cities list. Since 2008 Elkhart’s industrial employment — much of it in the recreational vehicle industry — has expanded 30%, one of the most dramatic employment turnarounds of any place in America. Unemployment has fallen to 5% from a recession high of 20.2%.
The South and the Great Lakes may be America’s industrial heartland, but there are several strong pockets in the West. One region that is doing particularly well is the Pacific Northwest, led by Seattle-Bellevue-Everett, which has experienced 11% manufacturing employment growth since 2010.
Boeing is key here, but the Pacific Northwest’s industrial expansion has also been fueled by low electricity rates, largely due to the area’s strength in hydroelectricity. Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro OR-WA (11th) is usually associated more with hipsters, but manufacturing growth has taken off, particularly with the expansion of Intel’s large semiconductor facility in suburban Hillsboro.
Another Western industrial hotspot is Utah, a state with low energy costs and business friendly regulation. Salt Lake City, 12th on our large metro area list, has enjoyed a 5.7% increase in industrial jobs since 2010. Growth has been even stronger in two other Utah cities, Provo -Orem and Ogden-Clearfield, which rank fifth and seventh, respectively, on our mid-sized cities list.
One surprising place where manufacturing is making a mild comeback is in the Bay Area, which for years has exported high-tech manufacturing jobs to places like Utah as well as the rest of the world. Despite ultra-expensive electricity, high labor costs and some of the world’s most demanding environmental laws, San Jose (13th on our big metros list) San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood (15th) have posted solid industrial growth after years of decline. Yet both remain below their 2008 levels, and may find new growth difficult once the current tech bubble collapses.
Two of the worst performers on this list are the big metro areas that have for decades been the country’s largest industrial hubs, Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale (55th) and Chicago-Joliet-Naperville (56th). It appears they lack the cost competitiveness and specialized focus of America’s ascendant industrial regions.
Another clear loser is the Northeast, which accounts for seven of the eight lowest ranked big metro areas. Since 2008, Philadelphia (62nd) has lost 21% of its once-large industrial job base, while New York City, which has been losing industrial jobs for decades, ranks 45th. Here, too, high costs and regulation are a factor, as well as the loss of industrial know-how resulting from long-term erosion of their manufacturing bases.
Of course, some information age enthusiasts may argue that losing such jobs is something of a badge of honor, since “smart” regions do not focus on the gritty business of making things. Yet if you look across the country, you can see that many of the strongest local economies, from Houston and Nashville to Seattle, have taken part in the U.S. industrial resurgence. It seems this is one party more worth joining than avoiding.
View the Best Cities for Manufacturing Jobs 2014 List
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. This article first appeared at Forbes.com and is republished with permission from the author.