Driving Collaboration

Southern Governors Association

Economic Leadership LLC is an economic development and information curation consultancy, assisting places, organizations, and leaders be more competitive, more collaborative, and ultimately, more successful. Ted Abernathy, founder and managing partner of the organization, sits down to talk about the state of manufacturing in Virginia, and how it is adapting to nationwide trends and issues related to modern industry. Steve Engelhardt reports.

In talking with people around the country, many will say that we’ve entered into what is the fourth industrial revolution, a period where the technology going into industry and the products coming out of it are unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” says Abernathy, who also serves as an economic policy advisor to the Southern Governors’’ Association. He’s referring to the fact that as things like automation and augmented reality—amongst other technologies— continue to weave their way into mainstream use inside manufacturing facilities across the country, the potential of the end product goes through the roof.


One state at the forefront of adapting to this new age of manufacturing is Virginia. “Manufacturing clusters have spread out across this country, but when looking at a state like Virginia, it acts as kind of a microcosm of such, with a diverse set of industries thriving in its north, south, east, and western areas of the state.” And he’s right. Given the state’s intimate proximity to Washington D.C., Virginia’s defense industry is one of the most robust in the entire country. Heading south into Norfolk, you’ll find boisterous shipbuilding and marine manufacturing going on in the port, and the western region of the state is defined by its forestry and agriculture manufacturing activity.

Fostering a Future

Workforce It’s why some of the world’s largest and most influential companies have decided to set up operations in the state, a trend that doesn’t look to slow down any time soon. But for all its industrial strengths and economic versatility, the state of Virginia is still facing down the same issue that the rest of the country is: workforce development.

“If you go around the country and talk with manufacturers, whether they’re in Virginia or any other state, almost everyone starts the conversation on maintaining their competitiveness with the ability to attract skilled workers,” says Abernathy. But it’s something that is already starting to already take effect, as he says that if you’re a welder or skilled machinist here in the United States, you can pretty much have your pick of job.


“But beyond just job-specific skills, there is also the need to be able to interact with new and emerging technology,” he says, adding, “When you then combine this with what is an industry-wide aging workforce and the fact that the younger generation is largely ignorant to a career in modern manufacturing, it creates a long-term work employment issue.”


It’s a significant shift from the past, where manufacturing was defined by its busy but monotonous work activity, where workers willingly forewent higher education after high school to labor inside what were dark and dirty factories all day long. For Abernathy, this history and its stark contrast to the present strikes a familiar tone. “My grandparents came off the farm to work in mills, and at the time they thought it was the greatest thing in the world because it represented a new, more effective way to work, where things like the weather didn’t impact their daily schedule.”


It’s that kind of shift that manufacturing today has made from the past, where advanced, innovative facilities have sprouted up around the country in place of traditional factories. But it’s also one that those in currently in high school and coming out of college are unaware of, and Abernathy says because of this, there is a great need for manufacturers to market themselves better. But progress is starting to show.


The Need For Collaboration

“What you’re now seeing is efforts, particularly by economic development agencies, into reworking curriculums at both the K-12 and community college level to not only help change students’ perceptions of a career in manufacturing, but make sure they actually have the quantifiable skills needed to succeed in today’s manufacturing workplace.”


One specific effort Abernathy and Economic Leadership have made in this area is their work with the Southern Governors’ Association on rewriting Innovation U, an education resource initially developed to examine which universities around the country were offering new types of training programs in a number of different industries. “Given the needs of modern manufacturing, this book was in need of an update, so we developed Innovation U2, which looks at key emerging training practices developed by particular institutions and determines if they can be replicated on a larger level at many other universities around the country.”


Ultimately it’s this collaboration of public and private entities that will serve as the key to generating meaningful progress in overcoming the nation’s workforce development issue, but while many state’s face down a long, hard road towards getting there, Virginia is one that is ahead of the curve.


“Virginia is already well on this path, because in this state you have the capital, a fantastic network of universities to draw innovation from, and a diverse set of industries and companies working together towards a common goal.”


It’s about creating a more interconnected society. How can manufacturers take clean technology breakthroughs coming out of Virginia Tech and apply them to the city of Roanoke’s water treatment facilities? How can a relatively small town of Danville, Va., accommodate five new manufacturing companies, each of whom need 100, highly skilled positions filled? These are the questions emerging in 2016, but through collaborations and innovative partnerships, states like Virginia are leading the way, laying the path for others to follow.


As further evidence of the effectiveness of public and private collaboration, Abernathy cites the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster, based out of North Carolina, an initiative of business, government, academic, and nonprofit leaders focused on accelerating the

growth of the Research Triangle’s cleantech economy.

The effort promotes collaboration and partnership which drive innovation and sector growth, creating competitive advantages for both companies and regions in the U.S. by concentrating resources on a single vision and plan to advance company growth and

attract cleantech investment. As of 2014, announced cleantech projects by the Research Triangle Region resulted in the creation of 10,500 recurring jobs and $1.29 billion in recurring investment.

© 2016 Industry VirginiaTM