Manufacturing partnership forms to enhance perception of blue-collar jobs, build up local labor supply

This is part one of a two-part series. Stay tuned for part two, which will focus on how a pandemic-induced hiring shortage is impacting members of the manufacturing partnership.

Twenty-plus-year Blair-HSM employee Joe Hall shaves millimeter-wide pieces of metal off an aluminum drag brake, used in military planes. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. –– A group representing nearly 30 manufacturing companies, including a handful of the largest employers in the region, has banded together to form an official alliance. 

The Cape Fear Manufacturing Sector Partnership is the first of its kind in the region and possibly the second in N.C. 

Its novelty is in an industry-driven structure, as opposed to a public-private partnership or public-led organization with business participation, according to Erin Easton. Manufacturers credit Easton with spearheading the concept into reality. 


“We’ve never done anything like this,” she said. “It’s a completely, kind of uncharted territory to handle things this way.”

A unified voice

As business engagement manager for the Cape Fear Workforce Development Board, an arm of the Cape Fear Council of Governments, Easton attended a conference last July on next-generation sector partnerships, where she first learned of the concept. 

Through research, the board and a network of other business-centric organizations chose  manufacturing in consideration of its growth trends, the need for it to have a focused group, and the desire to enhance the industry in the region, according to Easton. 

Manufacturing is the region’s second-largest gross regional product, generating $1.5 billion in 2019 with the fourth-highest earnings per worker, according to data prepared by the economic modeling firm, Emsi. 

The Wilmington metropolitan statistical area (which doesn’t include Brunswick County) includes 5,300 manufacturing jobs, representing 2.1% of the employment base, lower than the state’s 5.1%. Out of 21 sectors tracked by the N.C. Department of Employment Security, manufacturing brings in the fourth-highest wages per employee in New Hanover County, the fifth-highest in Pender, and ranks 11th in Brunswick. 

Despite its earnings potential, the industry nationwide appears to have a murky outlook: Between 2019 and 2029, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected it would lose nearly half a million jobs, more than any other sector. BLS attributes offshoring of jobs and automation as contributing to the projected industry blow. 

At least in the Cape Fear region, manufacturers are jointly saying there’s a surplus of openings and room for growth in a well-paying and dependable industry.

Last month, the partnership’s in-kind technical assistance from the N.C. Department of Commerce ended –– “we feel we’re ready to take this out on our own now,” Easton said. 

With nonprofits, economic development organizations, state business arms, and chambers of commerce, plenty of publicly funded partners aim to support regional businesses. 

“There’s so many people that want to help business,” Easton said. “But, essentially, the old model is, we all go at them with, ‘Here’s how we can help! Here’s a program we can have!’ And everybody’s doing that separately,” she said. “And it’s very overwhelming to the businesses, in particular, manufacturing.

“So I brought together the group of public partners to say, ‘Why don’t we actually listen to the businesses and throw in where appropriate, instead of always coming at them with, here’s how we can fix it.’” 

Shepherded by Easton, the Cape Fear Manufacturing Sector Partnership convened for its first formal meeting in December and came up with a short-term action plan last month. 

With a unified voice, the group has more clout. “If there was a policy that needed to be changed, when you’ve got 25 manufacturers going to the state and saying, ‘Hey, we need this,’ they’re going to have a lot more pull than the one-off guy going and saying, ‘Hey, my road needs fixed,’” Easton said. 

Aerospace parts produced by HSM Machine Works in Leland eventually make their way into military aircrafts. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
Aerospace parts produced by Blair-HSM in Leland eventually make their way into military aircraft. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

Short-term patch, long-term repercussions

At the helm of the partnership is Jim Flock, a man who can program machines to fine-tune just about any aerospace part. 

As general manager of Blair-HSM, Flock oversees a staff of 20 as they meticulously sculpt parts that eventually make their way out of a modest warehouse off Mt. Misery Road and into models including F-18s or F-35s for down-the-line clients like Boeing or Lockheed Martin. A second-tier subcontractor, Flock’s machine shop chisels forged parts (basically an unrefined stamp) until each is exhaustively polished and inspected, down to the millimeter. Employees on the shop floor make between $10 to $40 an hour, with those who show drive and dependability able to quickly accelerate. 

As a 6-year-old in Brooklyn, Flock said his father sat him with older women in his machine shop when his mother went to work on Saturdays. “He’d stick me with one of them as my babysitter and they’d put me to work on the machines,” he said. Flock remembers one day, his father gave him a big box of parts to fasten to keep him occupied. 

“He tells me, ‘I’ll give you a quarter a piece,’” he said. “He came back six hours later, I’d done something like 600 parts. I’m still waiting for that money.”

Aside from a self-admitted selfish aspiration to attract more dedicated employees, Flock is after a bigger picture. So far, the membership has adopted an initial two-pronged objective: 1. Improve the perception of blue-collar jobs; and 2. align the workforce demand with the region’s less-than ideal supply of talent. 

“I think that for a long time, there’s been a shift in society in this country, away from manual labor, so-called blue-collar jobs,” Flock said. “When I was a kid, they said, ‘Stay in school, stay in school, stay in school.’”

The partnership’s long-term goals are ambitious. Vocational programs, once engrained in lower education, were gutted over the past four decades in favor of an academic, college-bound rallying call. The manufacturers say the perception of manual labor has grown unfavorably over the past few generations –– “those are dirty jobs, your father did that, you don’t want to do that anymore,” Flock mimicked. 

Over the past decade, there’s been a trickling resurgence in vocational programs, offered at career-centered technical schools, still nowhere nearing the holistic public approach widespread in the early to mid-20th century. 

Though it would be a start, the partnership doesn’t just want a couple of new courses offered at local community colleges –– they want to catch kids in middle school. “They see a value in not a quick fix, but a long-term sustainable fix,” Easton explained.

Manufacturers face “downward pressure,” Flock said, whereby cutting costs by offshoring labor can be tempting. The pressure to maximize profitability has long-term consequences.  

“For years, there’s been that push to send it overseas, send it to China, to send it to India  because they don’t want to pay the American dollars to American workers,” he said. “I believe that’s a short-sighted mentality. Because it makes you a little extra money now, but it takes away from everything else in this country. It takes away from the workers, it takes away from the skill base and the labor. The more you pull away and give to these other places, the more you pull away from the American worker.”

Should President Joe Biden’s lofty infrastructure plan materialize, Flock said the nation’s labor force isn’t capable of picking up the work without outside help –– “we can’t support that industrial demand right now.” 

Flock is a bit more liberal with hiring than his colleagues in the partnership (he’ll hire anyone with the drive and wherewithal to work, sans certifications and education). Still, he picked up a gig teaching a computerized numerical control course at Brunswick Community College (BCC) to scout potential employees –– “it gives me the pick of the crop.”

Given Blair-HSM’s eventual client (the U.S. Department of Defense), Flock faced questioning when first trying to onboard former BCC student and “Dreamer” Jose Salazar, who migrated to the U.S. from Mexico with his parents as a child. Salazar is now protected by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

“He’s one of my rising stars,” Flock said. 

Salazar, 25, has worked in the shop for three years. “Where I was working at, I wasn’t being treated well. I wanted to do something new,” he said. “I like it [here] because there’s always something new to learn.”

Across the shop, Flock’s most senior, 20-year-plus employee, Joe Hall, was balancing an aluminum drag brake, carving off millimeter-wide shavings by hand to get the part more precise. When he sees planes cross the sky, Hall can think, “I did that,” he said.

Jose Salazar fine-tunes aerospace parts at Blair-HSM in Leland. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

Dropping the veil

An immediate benefit to the partnership has been the businesses’ awareness of one another. 

It seems simple, but the organization has already cut down on wasted time. One Pender County manufacturer was encountering a supply-chain issue with palates, and in minutes, had received sources from other members, instead of draining hours on Google trying to find them. 

Before the partnership, the companies’ visibility was limited. 

“I was born and raised here. I had no idea any of these companies existed — none. It doesn’t come across your radar,” said Kevin Lackey, Brunswick Business & Industry Development (BBID) director of business development. 

This fog also extends to a business-to-business vantage. Several years ago, Flow Sciences in Leland Industrial Park needed a specific kind of power cord for a model of its containment hoods. 

“They went all the way to California to a trade show. And they found a manufacturer for this component,” Lackey said. “Come to find out, both manufacturers were located in the same industrial park. There was no organized way for them to be aware of each other.”

The most immediate benefit of the partnership, Lackey said, is the ability to quickly share notes on topics organizations like BBID can’t as readily tackle; when the CDC changed its mask requirements, manufacturers with big legal teams shared their protocols with some of the smaller businesses. 

“In taking down the veil in getting to know who’s in your backyard, they can cross-pollinate and solve their own problems,” he said. “It’s business solving business problems — that’s the beauty of it.”

One of the newest members of the partnership, Ben Watts, Cape Fear Catamarans’ director of business operations and sales director, quickly tweaked a job posting after recently consulting with other members. Accustomed to posting “sub-par” job listings on Craigslist, Watts realized he should bump up the pay on his open welding position and adjust the job description.

“It actually paid pretty rapid dividends for us,” he said of the members’ feedback. “We went from not getting good applicants to getting a lot of qualified applicants.” 

Leading an eight-person team, Watts looks forward to busting the stigma surrounding blue-collar jobs and dusting off the shine glorifying white-collar careers. 

“Not everybody has to be a doctor or lawyer,” he said. “You can go and have a really nice career, build something really nice for yourself in this segment of the working world.”

Secondary to the networking benefit, Lackey credited the partnership’s lobbying potential as a unit. 

“They don’t think through red tape. They just think, ‘This is what I need, how do we make it happen?’” he said. 

By getting together in the same room (or Zoom), the manufacturers will take on workforce challenges in the partnership’s inaugural year. 

“They’re involved in totally different lines of work but they still have the same issues,” Flock said. “And that’s finding career-minded people who want to learn a craft and execute that craft and stay with it, and create real meaningful careers for themselves.” 

Companies interested in joining the Cape Fear Manufacturing Sector Partnership can email capefearmfg@gmail.com.


Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at johanna@localdailymedia.com

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