Aerospace Takes Off in Southeast US Despite Sluggish Economy

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Aerospace Takes Off in Southeast US Despite Sluggish Economy

It is “soaring to new heights.” It is really “taking off.” It is “flying high.” Use any cliché you’d like, but it is true; the aerospace industry is booming.

It is “soaring to new heights.” It is really “taking off.” It is “flying high.” Use any cliché you’d like, but it is true; the aerospace industry is booming.

To see evidence of this, look no further than the latest aerospace news. The two largest commercial aircraft manufacturers in the world, Boeing and Airbus, have a substantial presence in the US and are projecting demand for more than 35,000 and 32,000 new aircraft, respectively, over the next 20 years.  Demand for new aircraft is driven by growth in Asia as well as the need for airlines in Europe and the US to modernize their fleets and improve fuel efficiencies.

Despite the strains of sequestration, even the Department of Defense (DoD) is getting into the mix. Once considered a “problem program,” the F-35 is now the DoD’s “highest priority conventional warfare weapon system.” The Pentagon has requested 29 of the stealth aircraft for 2014 and production is on track to ramp up even more in fiscal year 2015.

The southeast US has been the newest gymnasium where the aerospace industry has flexed its muscles. Major players like Boeing, Airbus, Gulfstream, Embraer, Honda Jets and key suppliers such as GE Aviation, Honeywell, Rolls Royce and Spirit AeroSystems dot the landscape.

Signs of the southeast aerospace boom have been evident in recent weeks.  Boeing announced 102 orders of its flagship Dreamliner aircraft at the Paris Air Show. When Airbus and Boeing announce big orders, it has a ripple effect through their supply chains – parts providers also have to ramp up production. Airbus also achieved a significant milestone as on-lookers in Toulouse, France gazed with excitement at the first flight of the A350 XWB, the all new mid-size long range product, seating up to 350 passengers.

Spirit AeroSystems, the world’s largest independent supplier of commercial airplane assemblies and components, manufactures wing spars and center fuselage panels for the A350 XWB in its 500,000 sq. ft. state-of-the-art composite parts production facility at the Global TransPark (NCGTP) in Eastern NC. Even though the facility is far from full capacity, the operation near Kinston, NC already employs over 400 workers and, as Airbus ramps up production to meet demand for the A350 XWB, Spirit has plans to reach 1,000 by 2015.  The NCGTP location is also the worksite for nearly two dozen Airbus employees.

Yet Spirit is just the latest aerospace supplier to land in the Carolinas. Other aerospace mainstays have flourished in Eastern North Carolina: parts producers Kidde Defense, AAR Cargo Systems, Honeywell, and Eaton have been present here for years and MROs like Mt. Air Cargo and the US Navy Fleet Readiness Center East on board MCAS Cherry Point, all reside within a 60 mile radius of the NC Global TransPark.

Even local companies are entering the field by obtaining their AS9100 certificates. NC Manufacturing, a precision machine shop in Goldsboro, NC, is the latest to earn the certification and has since landed a contract with Spirit.

All of this growth threatened to test the capabilities of the regional labor market. Notwithstanding the potential to recruit from the 6,000 annual exiting Marine and Air Force military personnel, action to produce local talent was still required. Regional leaders decided it was important to increase the pipeline of students exposed to STEM-based job opportunities – several key elements were already in place.  Area stakeholders had already started heavily promoting WorkKeys and Career Readiness Certificates as a means to accelerate the hiring process and reduce turnover, but gaps remained in the education system. Local educational institutions, including public schools, community colleges and East Carolina University, responded to the challenge to insure these companies have the STEM-qualified workforce they need.

Funding from Golden LEAF (the recipient of half of North Carolina’s tobacco settlement) and federal sources allowed several public school systems to install middle school STEM Centers as part of the new ‘STEM East’ initiative launched by the regional economic development agency.  Its objective is to engage area employers in the classroom, providing students daily exposure to STEM-based careers (science, technology, engineering and math) using computer technology.  According to one middle school principal, test scores after one year increased by nearly 20% after the school installed a STEM Center. Nothing else changed at the school.  The STEM East network also seeks to connect classroom teachers with outside resources and experiences – scientists and engineers from area employers.

Golden LEAF funding also enabled several community colleges to upgrade their machining as well as power plant and air frame training programs.  Additionally, faculty in the engineering department at East Carolina University led the way in developing articulation agreements with area community colleges to allow students completing the two-year Associates of Applied Science degree to transfer up to 60 credit hours toward a bachelor’s degree – the overall goal being a seamless transition of students from middle to high school to community college and beyond.

Such a diverse industry presence and commitment by regional leaders to meet employers’ needs, makes the area ripe for additional suppliers who want a spot on the East Coast Avenue of the US aerospace market. Even aerospace companies without a presence in the region are taking notice of what is happening. During a recent speaking engagement at the Civil Aviation Manufacturing conference in Charlotte, the VP for Global Business Management of LORD Corp. praised the workforce development efforts in eastern NC, citing it as a replicable model that helped the defense/aerospace parts manufacturer quickly ramp up its workforce with qualified talent at its Erie, PA facility.

Many of these factors played into Spirit’s decision as it was determining the best location for expansion in 2010.

“We looked at factors such as workforce development, proximity to multi-modal transportation; we looked at the general economic development climate in each region and a number of other factors, as you can imagine, and of the hundreds of sites we looked at, North Carolina and the Global TransPark popped out as one of the very top ones,” said Tom Greenwood, Program Director, Spirit AeroSystems.

“In eastern NC, obviously we moved here because it made great business sense. We see a great long-term future. But it also helps us because attracting people here is easy; a great quality of life,” Greenwood added.