COLUMBIA — As Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham posed with one of Michelin’s 12-foot tall Earthmover tires, the symbolism wasn’t all that subtle. With the announcement of three new huge tire plants in South Carolina in the past seven months, the state will make more tires that any other in 2013.
But it’s not just tires that are fueling a manufacturing renaissance in a state that has always put a heavy emphasis on making things. Along with the tire plants, Haley has attended announcements recently for new plants that make everything from respiratory drugs to candy.
In the shadow of the giant tire on Tuesday, Haley said South Carolina needs to make sure it doesn’t only make things that are round and rubber.
“In South Carolina, we are totally focused on building things. We want to make sure we build, but we want to diversify,” Haley said.
Most of the 3,300 or more tire-making jobs announced in the past year won’t be filled until sometime in the future since those plans were just hatched, but employment figures show that the state has added nearly 10,000 manufacturing jobs in the last year.
That’s good news for a place where the hum of machines has been the soundtrack for economic development in its modern history.
“We have a deep, deep heritage of manufacturing in South Carolina,” said Bruce Yandle, an economics professor emeritus at Clemson University.
In 1970, manufacturing jobs made up 34 percent of South Carolina’s workforce. But globalization and the Great Recession hit manufacturing hard in the past decade. State figures show South Carolina lost 38 percent of its manufacturing jobs as 125,000 workers saw their plants close or move somewhere else.
South Carolina is finding its way out of the economic doldrums through sending items made here to other countries. Exports rose more than 21 percent from 2010 to 2011, with BMWs, turbines and tires leading the way, according to U.S. Census data.
Michelin said 80 percent of those giant Earthmover tires made in South Carolina will be shipped out of the country, many of them to developing countries that need construction equipment as they go through massive economic growth.
Exporting to developing markets will also help Boeing, a new economic heavyweight on the scene in South Carolina, Yandle said.
“We are positioning ourselves to participate with the high growth poised to take place in the developing world,” Yandle said.
South Carolina has cornered the market in an industry before. In the 1920s, the state surpassed Massachusetts as the top producer of textiles, said University of South Carolina historian Walter Edgar.
That market eventually fell apart with the growth of free trade and companies taking advantage of cheaper labor overseas. Of South Carolina’s top 25 exports last year, cotton and cotton yarn are the only textile products that make the list.
The expansion of the automotive industry across the Southeast has helped South Carolina find another niche in the manufacturing world, Yandle said.
Michelin officials Tuesday also celebrated 40 years of making tires in South Carolina, saying they keep expanding in the state because of its low tax base, fairly low wages, small percent of unions and backing from politicians from the local level through the governor’s office and into Congress.
After the Michelin announcement, Graham said South Carolina’s workers also deserve credit. The Republican U.S. senator had a small part in building Michelin’s first tire plant in South Carolina almost 40 years ago as a high school job.
“If you’re looking for a workforce who will get up early and stay late, give you an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, South Carolina is the best place to come,” he said.