Manufacturing continues to thrive in Lee County

September 08, 2023 | Written by: Morgan

The decades-long exodus of American manufacturing jobs to less developed areas of the world led many to conclude that manufacturing is dead in the United States and North Carolina. While the type and amount of manufacturing may have changed, it is far from dead, and remains essential to the United States, North Carolina, and here in Sanford/Lee County. Below, I have recapped an article by Neil Harrington of the North Carolina Department of Commerce’s Labor and Economic Analysis Division that discusses the importance of manufacturing in North Carolina and, subsequently, Sanford/Lee County.

The manufacturing sector has held a pivotal role in North Carolina’s economic history for many years. Its establishment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in textile, furniture, and tobacco mills, was crucial in transitioning the state from an agrarian-based economy to an industrial one. This transformation has led to economic prosperity and the creation of well-paying jobs, defining our state’s and local communities’ economic landscape. Even today, the manufacturing remains a driving force, employing hundreds of thousands across urban and rural areas and contributing significantly to the state’s economic output. It has done the same in Sanford. Manufacturing has played an important role in the local economy and shaped how Sanford has grown.

In 2022, manufacturing employed 472,000 individuals in North Carolina, accounting for 10% of total employment and ranking as the third-largest employment sector. In Sanford and Lee County, manufacturing employs over 7,459 people and is the largest industry sector by a wide margin, representing over 26% of total employment. Over the years, manufacturing consistently held a top-three position in employment sectors, even claiming the top spot between 1990 and 2007. Notably, North Carolina’s share of manufacturing employment (10%), along with Sanford and Lee County (26.5%), surpassed the national average (8.5%), emphasizing its vital role in our labor market.

One of the most compelling aspects of the manufacturing sector is its provision of well-paying jobs. The average annual wage in manufacturing was $67,912 in NC; in Sanford, the average annual manufacturing wage is $62,910. This has made manufacturing a crucial path to the middle class for many people, often without the need for a four-year college degree.

Despite the image of large corporations dominating manufacturing, small establishments with fewer than 100 employees play a significant role. These businesses constitute roughly 90% of all manufacturing establishments, collectively contributing about 31% of employment and 27% of wages in the sector. Sanford and Lee County are no different; although we have many large employers, most manufacturing establishments employ less than 100 people. Small businesses, especially small manufacturing businesses, are the backbone of the economy.

The manufacturing industry’s impact extends to the state’s economic output, with manufacturing contributing approximately 15.4% to North Carolina’s GDP in 2022. In Sanford and Lee County, manufacturing contributed over $1.5 billion, five times more than the nearest sector, Real Estate, and Rental and Leasing at $254 million. Lee County’s GDP also grew in 2021 by 7.9% with help from a rebounding manufacturing sector.

Ensuring the long-term health of North Carolina’s manufacturing sector is vital. At the Sanford Area Growth Alliance, we understand the importance of manufacturing to our community. That is why we spend much time and effort recruiting manufacturers and working to keep them in our community. The industry’s adaptation to the fourth industrial revolution, driven by technology and automation, will help shape the future of our economy in North Carolina and Sanford/Lee County. We at SAGA believe that it will be a bright one.

Todd Tucker

Economic Development Director