The manufacturing base of Southern California is staging a modest comeback in the face of an often overlooked fact: that Southern California actually has a manufacturing base, and a huge one at that, according to a report released Tuesday by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.
The study found that Orange County is the 12th largest manufacturing center in the United States, with 211,800 jobs last year, up 3.1% from the year before.
Manufacturing employment in the county is expected to rise 3.2% to 218,500 this year.
Manufacturing holds much untapped potential for the Southern California region, along with presenting many challenges, said Jack Kyser, EDC chief economist and author of the report.
“There are many myths about the Los Angeles area, including such gems as the only local industry is motion picture production. Or, that all the factory jobs ‘went away’ due to the aerospace industry downsizing in the early 1990s,” the report said.
The number of manufacturing jobs in Los Angeles County began growing again last year after eight years of decline, rising 1.2% to 646,100 jobs, the report by the local jobs promotion group said. The EDC projects another 2% increase this year to 659,100 jobs.
Los Angeles County ranks second nationally in the number of manufacturing jobs, behind the three-county Chicago metropolitan area.
The emerging turnaround in manufacturing jobs in Southern California is being driven by apparel and textiles as well as renewed vigor in defense, commercial aircraft and other high-tech manufacturing, the EDC report said. Apparel employment statistics generate some controversy because skeptics maintain that the growth comes partly from underground contractors who are “going legitimate,” Kyser said.
“Apparel is our Rodney Dangerfield industry,” he said. “They add jobs and they get whacked.”
The manufacturing rebound is reflected in declining industrial vacancy rates in Southern California.
Orange County’s industrial vacancy rate was 9.3% in the first quarter, down from 11.1% a year earlier, according to the real estate firm Grubb & Ellis. Los Angeles County’s first-quarter industrial vacancy rate of 6.7% was down from 8.1% a year ago.
The type of manufacturing that will feed the region’s future, Kyser said, are small but growing companies such as Irvine-based I-Flow Corp., which makes medical infusion pumps, and Chatsworth-based Chatcom Inc., which produces industrial-grade computer systems for network computing.
“We have a new wave manufacturing base,” Kyser said. “We’re doing a lot of interesting things, but not cars, not steel.”