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Study shows manufacturing still leading sector in Valley economy

News Virginian
By: Bob Stuart

WAYNESBORO – A study commissioned by the Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board shows that manufacturing is still the largest industry sector in the Valley.

And while educators and economic development experts say that news does not surprise them, they say there is work to be done in finding more workers trained and employed in manufacturing.

The study released last week by Chmura Economics and Analytics shows that 13.8 percent of all employment in the Shenandoah Valley is in manufacturing. The average wage for those jobs is just over $50,000. Chmura Analytics surveyed more than 100 respondents representing 77 Valley businesses.

And despite the shifts toward retail and service jobs, the overall manufacturing employment in the Shenandoah Valley has grown by 2.3 percent over the last year, faster than the total regional employment growth of 1.7 percent.

Amanda Glover, Augusta County’s director of economic development, said the percentage of manufacturing jobs in the county’s economy is about 20 percent. She said manufacturing is the prime target of the county, and said the county has both the infrastructure to support it and the skilled workers.

But there are challenges looming. Experts say it is important to provide a pipeline of young and trained workers for Valley manufacturers, and to get the attention of underemployed adult workers about the opportunities in manufacturing.

Blue Ridge Community College President John Downey said one of the targets are those workers who are underemployed between the ages of 25 and 55.  “I’d love to see them invest in an associate degree or the shorter in-demand workforce training,’’ Downey said.

Downey said these workers may not be aware of some of the more intriguing jobs available in manufacturing. “We have jobs designing local machinery, working with electronics and putting airplanes together,’’ he said.

The college president said there are grants available to help pay the costs of the training.

Robin Sullenberger, the former CEO of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership, said another key is continuing to provide a flow of young workers for Valley manufacturers.

“We are always recruiting,’’ said Sullenberger, who serves on Virginia’s Community College board and is a member of the Shenandoah Valley Workforce Board.

He said it is important to dispel the negative notions young people may have about working in a manufacturing plant. And Sullenberger said it is incumbent on both vocational schools and community colleges to offer more computer courses to prepare workers for the wave of automation that will happen in manufacturing.

Sullenberger and Downey said the Shenandoah Valley is blessed to have a varied economy.

“One of the reasons the Valley weathers a recession is because we have such a diverse economy,’’ Downey said. And he said recent investments like the expansions of Augusta County industries such as Shamrock Farms and Hershey bode well for the future.

“They are staying,’’ Downey said. And he said one of the reasons these industries remain locally is because “the workers are phenomenal.”

Glover said the manufacturing businesses in the area support construction and also offer jobs for their support services such as in marketing, finance and management. She said manufacturing also spurs work for CPA and law firms.

Sullenberger said some of the lower profile jobs dealing with industry need employees. “One of the highest priorities is training truck drivers,’’ he said. Sullenberger said truck drivers equipped with a commercial driver’s license are needed for jobs in logistics, distribution and warehousing.

One area of improvement cited in the study is that 77 percent of those surveyed cited a need for better basic work skills by those applying. Downey said such skills are important and include showing up on time, being able to work with others and wearing a uniform.

A deeper look at the state of the area’s employment will happen on June 12 at the State of the Valley Workforce Forum at Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave.

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