Utah 4th, Colorado 13th in aerospace manufacturing ranking as more confusion reigns

By Bart Taylor | Jul 17, 2016

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Data continues to trickle out this summer that ranks and grades states for business and manufacturing prowess. It's been a better month for the region even as analysts and journalists continue to struggle to get a handle on a fast-changing manufacturing sector.

In CNBC's annual ranking of America's Top States for Business 2016 Utah grabbed the top spot, Texas was second and Colorado third. California (32), New Mexico (39), and Nevada (40) found the lower half of the rankings among other western neighbors.

Utah also crashed the top five of PricewaterhouseCoopers' 2015 Aerospace Manufacturing Attractiveness Rankings, with an impressive overall ranking of four. Colorado was 13th. For Utah, it's a strong comeback from the Conexus Indiana report that confounded as much as it informed. Despite awarding the state three As out of eight categories, the report gave Utah's manufacturing sector an overall grade of C. The PwC report is a deserved correction.

Washington, home to global powerhouse Boeing, ranked 12th and pundits there weren't pleased. The Seattle Times' John Talton was incensed:

Washington boasts one of the planet's two largest aerospace clusters (along with "Aerospace Valley" in Toulouse, France). In addition to Boeing, more than 1,300 aerospace-related companies are located here. In May, 91,700 employees worked in aerospace product and parts manufacturing. This is the backbone that makes Washington the nation's third largest state for merchandise exports. Aerospace education is ubiquitous. Oh, as for taxes, don't forget the nearly $9 billion in aerospace tax breaks associated with the 777X.

He concluded, with a sneer, "it appears the rankings are a combination of statistical fluke and reliance on local (potentially boosterish) reports".

But as we've documented the past few weeks, manufacturing is confounding most everyone who's measuring or writing about it.

Patty Silverstein, president and chief economist at Development Research Partners in Jefferson County, Colorado, chalks up growth in Colorado's food and beverage manufacturing sector to cannibas. But she's not sure.

Silverstein made the correlation referencing growth in food manufacturing numbers in a Denver Post article last week:

Recreational cannabis sales began in 2014. That year, "we had a 3.5 percent increase in employment. In 2015, a 4.9 percent increase in food-manufacturing employment," she said. "The data doesn't allow us to slice and dice to say, 'These are indeed edibles or not,' but the recognition is this is where they would be classified."

She continued:

"Is it cavalier of me to say (manufacturing growth is directly correlated to the cannabis industry)? Absolutely," she said. "I cannot prove or disprove it. But you look at who are the new entrants."

It's a surprising admission in light of other data and stories we've uncovered the past two and a half years, in the form of our weekly features on Colorado's proliferating food and beverage companies. The 'new entrants' are dozens of innovators changing the national food conversation from Boulder, Fort Collins, and Denver and pitching their ideas across the state. They're in plain sight.*

Colorado economic development officials can't seem to believe their eyes either. How else to explain the comments of Laura Blomquist, senior manager of strategy and analytics at the state's Office of Economic Development and International Trade?

In celebrating the state's strong "knowledge-based" economy and high-percentage of educated workers, Blomquist used words that marginalize Colorado's strong manufacturing economy. "The United States is transitioning to a post-industrial society increasingly comprised of knowledge-based enterprises," she said. "These enterprises create higher paying jobs that typically require significant preparation through higher education and a high degree of complexity and innovation in the work itself.

I read recently the U.S. Secretary of Commerce refer to new manufacturing jobs as the "IT jobs of the future." With manufacturing companies here and elsewhere struggling to find qualified employees, it's time to roll out a new vocabulary that better meets the needs of a neo-industrial society that includes modern manufacturing.

We'd all be less confused.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Contact him at btaylor@companyweek.com.

[*Panelists will be providing an update on Colorado's natural and organic food sector at next week's Manufacturing Growth & Financing Conference in Denver. Register here.]