Industrial Jobs Coming Back to Seattle

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Seattle's Industrial District

Seattle’s Industrial District (Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives)

Seattle’s long range strategy for encouraging manufacturing is paying off, as Forbes magazine, in a recent article, rated the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue Metropolitan Area as the top area for manufacturing growth in the nation over the last five years.

Manufacturing employment is growing around the country, as industries realize the opportunity for ‘reshoring’ industrial activity.  Much of this activity moved to other countries to take advantage of low wages and the lack of regulatory requirements that are typical of many less industrialized countries.  However, these advantages can only go so far:  companies are realizing that low wages often mean low skills, and that workers who acquire skills will leave for better jobs as these countries develop.  The lack of regulations may cut costs in some cases, but it can also create difficult and challenging environments to work in and cut productivity.  Companies seeking long range sustainability not only want strong environmental regulations to level the playing field, but prefer stable and predictable environmental regulations to manage costs.  Companies also have experienced difficulties with legal and political systems, such as arbitrary and/or corrupt officials, difficulties in what should be routine business practices like managing relations and financial issues with subcontractors who have quality control problems, and issues around trademarks and intellectual property rights.

Since 2010, manufacturers have added 470,000 jobs in the United States, with a rate of job growth that is 10% faster than the rest of the private economy, Forbes reports.  Areas that have fared best have been those that are well positioned to bring together technology and manufacturing.  In our area Boeing is the outstanding example, but many other industries now create high-tech and blue-collar jobs at the same time.

Over the past year the Seattle metropolitan area was No. 2 in the nation in manufacturing growth, expanding employment by 7.9% to 164,000 manufacturing jobs.  The aerospace sector, led by Boeing, accounted for roughly half this expansion.  Seattle is one of the few big metropolitan areas where there are more manufacturing jobs today than in 2006, before the recession hit.  Manufacturing employment is up 0.4% over the past five years.

This is great news for our economy and for the thousands of workers who are making the kind of living wages that these jobs usually provide.  It’s also a big responsibility for government and decision makers, who will need to be sensitive to the concerns and issues around manufacturing and industrial facilities, effective at finding and using land that can support industry, and efficient at bringing together economic concerns and environmental regulations to ensure that we can simultaneously grow our economy and protect and enhance the environmental quality that is so important to our future.

One creative way Seattle is working to do this is my proposed Industrial Development District.  Since I proposed this in 2010, there has been growing momentum in support of the idea, and the State of Washington has just signed on to join Seattle, King County, and the Port of Seattle in issuing a Request for Concepts for pilot industrial development projects, now expected to come out in July.