South Carolina’s fledgling aerospace industry is taking flight.
The state is outpacing neighbors North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama in private sector aerospace employment and revenue growth, according to a University of South Carolina study to be released Thursday at the second annual South Carolina Aerospace Industry Conference and Expo.
“It’s the fastest-growing industry we have in the state, ” S.C. Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt said Wednesday during his opening remarks at the two-day conference held at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.
Hitt noted that 40 aerospace companies have opened in the state since Boeing announced it would open an assembly plant in North Charleston in 2009, bringing the state’s total to about 400. Of those, 74 percent are small businesses with five or fewer employees. The 40 companies represent a total investment of about $2.2 billion, he said. “And we’ve had 17 announcements since last year’s conference,” Hitt said.
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The study “Aerospace in the Southeast: South Carolina and Its Competitive Markets,” to be released Thursday, shows that from 2010 to 2012:
▪ South Carolina’s annual private sector aerospace employment grew by 15.5 percent. That exceeded North Carolina, which increased by 10.7 percent; Alabama, which increased by 2.5 percent; and Georgia, which declined by 2.3 percent.
▪ The state’s annual private sector aerospace revenue growth increased by 15.5 percent. That exceeded North Carolina, which increased by 8.1 percent; Georgia, which increased by 6.9 percent; and Alabama, which declined by 1.8 percent.
▪ In private sector aerospace firm growth, South Carolina experienced an 18.7 percent increase, ranking third behind North Carolina (25.3 percent) and Alabama (21.3 percent) and ahead of Georgia (14.1 percent).
The study was prepared by USC economist Joey Von Nessen, a research economist with the Darla Moore School of Business, in partnership with the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness and the Harvard Business School.
The conference was headlined by Gov. Nikki Haley, who was joined by USC President Harris Pastides, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and Zafer Gurdal, director of the McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research at USC.
Haley said “the reason the state’s aerospace industry is growing is because Boeing is growing.” Boeing has three major South Carolina facilities in Charleston, including a final assembly facility for the 787 Dreamliner and a plant that fabricates, assembles and installs systems for rear fuselage sections of the Boeing 787.
Haley also noted that the state has four very active military aviation bases: McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover, Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, Joint Base Charleston and Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. All of them leverage the state’s aviation suppliers.
These companies “know our military bases aren’t going anywhere and Boeing isn’t going anywhere,” she said.
Gurdal said that attendance at the conference was exceeding expectations, another indicator of the industry’s growth in the state. Last year, “we expected 200 people and got more than 400,” he said. “They are from different parts of the state, different parts of the country and different parts of the world.”
Monday’s keynote speaker was Mike Bunker, director of aftbody, or fuselage, operations for Boeing, which was the conference’s major sponsor. He said the North Charleston plant has grown from 240 acres when it opened in 2011 to 468 acres today. It has the ability to grow to 884 acres.