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Facing deindustrialization, smaller regions turn to innovation, workforce development

May 11, 2017
By: Jonathan Dworin

In a recent Digest article, SSTI covered research highlighting the oversized role that offshoring multinationals had in manufacturing employment decline from 1983 to 2011. During this time, deindustrialization and manufacturing unemployment had a profound impact on community approaches to economic development. Larger metropolitan areas like Pittsburgh, PA, Roanoke, VA, and Greenville, SC, have received considerable acclaim for their ability to restructure their economies around new and innovative technologies. Less covered, however, are the smaller rural or rust belt regions that are seeking to leverage higher education, community partnerships, an increasingly skilled workforce, and innovative technologies to become more competitive in a 21st century economy.

Faced with the closure of a plant operated the Robert Shaw Corporation and the loss of hundreds of jobs, the Southern Missouri city of West Plains developed partnerships with Missouri State University-West Plains, the West Plains School District and the South Central Career Center to create the Greater Ozarks Center for Advanced Technology (GOCAT). Funded with a $225,000 grant from the Delta Regional Authority and a $300,000 grant from the state of Missouri, the 16,000-square foot, refurbished city-owned GOCAT facility offers associate’s degrees for applied science in technology, with options in either alternative energy or advanced manufacturing, as well as customized programs for area businesses and industries.

Newton, IA, a city 30 minutes east of Des Moines, faced a similar situation. After Michigan-based Whirlpool acquired Maytag in 2006, the company closed its main headquarters and plant – taking nearly 2,000 jobs in the process. In response, the city pivoted its economic development efforts toward attracting the then-burgeoning wind industry, while also supporting entrepreneurial endeavors started by former Maytag engineers. Approximately one decade later, Des Moines Area Community College announced it was expanding academic programs into the former Maytag headquarters after receiving the buildings as a donation – the largest in the school’s history. DACC will be collocated in the former headquarters alongside nearby businesses, with potential partnerships for internships and other student learning opportunities. In March, the city of Newton approved up to $6 million in TIF funds for the campus. At its nearby Ankeny campus, DMACC offers a two-year degree through its Wind Turbine Technician program.

In Hickory, NC, nearly 60 miles north of Charlotte, community college support has helped the region’s centuries-old textiles industry innovate in order to compete. Founded in 1990, The Catawba Valley Community College-based nonprofit Manufacturing Solutions Center has been central to training an advanced textiles workforce, assisting entrepreneurs, and supporting small businesses. CVCC also houses the Hosiery Technology Center, which operates a testing lab for hosiery products from both mills and major retailers, in collaboration with additional colleges and universities, trade associations, and Manufacturing Extension Partnership centers.

In the 2016 book The Smartest Places on Earth, authors Antoine van Agtmael and Fred Bakker posit that rust belt locales are emerging as hotspots of global innovation because of a combination of factors, namely through basic and applied research, increased connectivity, and multi-disciplinary approaches to shared challenges. While van Agtmael and Bakker’s framework is more likely to apply to the Pittsburgh, Roanoke, or Greenville examples, the above approaches indicate that there are also opportunities for smaller regions to become more competitive, especially around workforce development.

The ability for smaller regions to restructure to compete better in the 21st century is not only a matter of economic significance, but also of social and political importance. The relationship between deindustrialization and social anomie, as previously discussed in the Digest, is explored in recent books on Ohio cities such as Glass Housewhich discusses Anchor Hocking and Lancaster, and Hillbilly Elegy, which touches on the former importance of Aramco jobs in Middletown. Additionally, as Brown University professor Josh Pacewicz writes in the Washington Post, “Rust Belt populism is rooted in the region’s loss of locally owned industry – not simply because of economics but because of how that loss hollowed out the community structure that once connected people to politics, leaving residents alienated and resentful.” 

Iowa, Missouri, North Carolinamanufacturing, rural