There has been much discussion lately about the state of manufacturing in the U.S., particularly the fact that it has seriously dwindled over the last 15 years and cost Americans millions of jobs. Two culprits have been blamed: 1. free trade agreements that allowed companies to ship jobs out of the country and overseas for lower wages and, 2. advancement in technology whereby robots and machines replace humans. This has led to the decline of the industry, from roughly 18 million jobs in 2000 to 12.3 million in 2016. This has also become a contentious issue between the presidential candidates.
In Ventura County, however, there has been a renewed focus on the industry. According to Bruce Stenslie, president/CEO of the Economic Development Collaborative, Ventura County, the county has had a long history with manufacturing, with Amgen (phamarceuticals) and Haas Automation (machine tool builder), both being a steady supplier of jobs and being frontrunners with new technology. But the local industry is diverse and unique, often providing higher-than-average-paying manufacturing jobs. With local companies opening their doors now for Manufacturing Week, Oct. 3-7, giving area high0school students a literal inside look at the operations of the industry, Stenslie shed some light on what’s happening right here in our own backyard.

How many manufacturing companies are in Ventura County and how many do they employee?
Currently, [there are] 907 manufacturing firms out of a total 23,772 payroll firms, or 3.8 percent of the total. Currently, [there are] 30,425 manufacturing employees, or 11.3 percent of private sector payrolls.

What is the median wage of local manufacturing employees?
The Brookings [research and policy] Institute calculates that the average manufacturing wage in Ventura County is over $90,000, nearly twice the average for all sectors combined. This, of course, is drawn high, owing to Amgen, but even excepting that, manufacturing, on average, pays better than average wages. That noted, there’s a wide range. Entry-level shop-floor workers, especially for small employers, may be making just above minimum wage, though the sector is moving inexorably toward higher-skill knowledge workers, such as engineers, so the higher wages.

What is the area’s history in manufacturing?
It has deep roots in defense contracting, partly associated with what is now Naval Base Ventura County, partly simply driven by the larger Southern California aerospace network. That share has seen the steepest decline, first owing to the contraction in aerospace and defense contracting in the 1990s, post-Cold War, then since the Recession, with a decline generally in large-scale defense contracting.
Aside from those roots, it’s wildly diverse, and populated significantly by small firms (499 of the 907 firms have fewer than 10 employees). It has a significant history and concentration in bio-tech and related fields, with Amgen a driving force, particularly since around 1990. It is substantially sustained by Haas Automation, since arriving here in 1997, which employs over 1,000 locally, but has an even larger footprint through its supply chain, which is highly concentrated in Ventura County.

Since 2000, the sector high point in that time frame was 42,000 jobs. In the early 2000s it pulled back to just under 40,000, mostly stayed at 38,000 or better until 2007, then fell back rapidly to the 30,000 level, which it’s held steady at for about the last five years.

The conventional wisdom is that the sector in Ventura County fell behind competitor or peer regions through this period. That’s wholly incorrect. The Brookings Institute shows that in the year 1990, for example, Ventura County only had about 75 percent of the nation’s average for its concentration in manufacturing employment. In 2010, we moved up, to having a 22 percent higher concentration of jobs in manufacturing than the average region. We still today have a higher concentration than either the state or nation as a whole. To illustrate, manufacturing generates 25 percent of the Ventura County GDP, significantly higher than the national average. A lot of that is Amgen.

What exactly is being manufactured here?
• Haas Automation: machine tools (that is, the machines other manufacturers buy to manufacture whatever they’re making)
• Meissner Filtration Products: micro-filtration products for the pharmaceutical industry
• ECA Medical Instruments: surgical instruments for heart valve replacements, other cardiovascular, orthopedic and neuromodulation surgeries
• W.L. Rubottom: custom cabinets
• AeroVironment: drones of all kinds, sensors for wind turbine technology
• Sessa manufacturing: precision metal fabrication, designs and manufactures parts for a wide range of industries
• Trupart manufacturing: precision laser cutting, prototyping
• Amgen: pharmaceuticals
• Baxalta/Shire: blood serum products
• Jetair Technologies: designs and manufactures high-speed blowers, air knives, much of it for packaging in the food sector

Do the products stay local?
A lot of it does, but we’re a huge exporter. Haas alone comes close to $500 million annually in exports. They’re close to a $1 billion company; about half the revenue is in exports. Some 10 percent of Ventura County’s GDP, or more than $5 billion annually, goes out in exports. A good share of that — say, about 11 percent — is in ag exports, and maybe a third is in services, but some 15 percent is in pharmaceuticals, and more than 20 percent in various kinds of machinery and instruments. Our major trade partners are primarily Mexico and Canada, then East Asia, Europe and South and Central America, essentially in that order. We are truly globally distributed., e.g., ECA Medical Instruments ships to virtually every country on the planet that does any sophisticated heart and other high-end surgeries; Haas Automation is also a wholly global company.