California’s golden mix of manufacturing industries bodes well for the future

By Bart Taylor | Dec 11, 2019

As CompanyWeek Editor Eric Peterson recaps some of the standout companies featured in 2019, it's also a good time to look forward. Much has been made recently about U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) employment data. We summarized Colorado's numbers here. What to make of California's 2018 and 2019 data, but more importantly, the BLS forecast that after 2020, U.S. manufacturing employment will begin a prolonged swoon? What's in California's future?

Any manufacturing employment conversation today is two-sided: positive with respect to the sector's current 10-year national expansion, yet bookended by a loss of four million manufacturing jobs during the Great Recession and a forecast by BLS actuaries who believe employment will fall from 13 million or so jobs in 2020 to 12 million in 2028.

It's easy to find voices to argue both sides of the story in California. Skeptics cite California's rich technology ecosystem as a priority, or the impact of automation on future manufacturing job growth. A small but vocal faction might argue that manufacturing is incompatible with a "modern" economy.

Indeed, a recent study suggests California enjoys a commanding position in technology, with three of the top five cities in a cabal that essentially controls America's high-tech economy:

Just five metropolitan areas—Boston; San Diego; San Francisco; Seattle; and San Jose, Calif.—accounted for 90% of all U.S. high-tech job growth between 2005 to 2017, according to the research by think-tank scholars Mark Muro and Jacob Whiton of the Brookings Institution and Rob Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Not surprisingly, we'll argue the opposite.

Here are California's top five manufacturing industry employers (final numbers 2018):

  1. Computer and electronic product manufacturing 278,514 employees
  2. Food 160,350
  3. Fabricated metal product manufacturing 132,731
  4. Transportation equipment manufacturing 126,557
  5. Chemical manufacturing 80,469

Machinery manufacturing is a close sixth, with 77,197 employees.

Why are these numbers positive?

  • Three of the top five are trending up (year over year, 2017-2018): computer and electronic product manufacturing, +2.4 percent; transportation equipment manufacturing, +13 percent; and fabricated metal product manufacturing, +2.4 percent.
  • Food is down less than a percent, but the trend in food is smaller, more agile and innovative companies. It's easy to surmise that California's in an envious position given the states world-class ag sector and dynamic entrepreneurial food (and beverage) ecosystem.
  • Industry mix means everything in today's manufacturing sector. The same week that many Western cities with highly diverse sectors realized high-water marks for manufacturing employment, officials in Pittsburgh were facing the stark reality that manufacturing employment had reached an all-time low as a percent of the regional labor force. An ideal mix in 2020 tracks to California's combination of technology-informed manufacturing (e.g. computer and electronic product manufacturing, transportation equipment including EVs, aerospace and aviation, etc.); food and beverage; chemical manufacturing; and high-potential industry sectors like cannabis, outdoor industry, and other consumer sectors searching collectively for a path back onshore.

Other data points to a hyperactive California sector. CMTA, the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, notes that "a third of Caifornia's current 1.6 million job openings are in the manufacturing sector." As tough as it is for companies to find qualified employees, it's clear that today, manufacturing is a job creator in California.

As we turn the page on a successful year in manufacturing, our focus on California companies changing the narrative is unchanged, only heightened. We begin 2020 with a yearlong quest to find the "10 Most Influential Manufacturers" in California.

Have a company in mind? Email me to get the 2020 underway.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at btaylor@companyweek.com.