MOBILE, Ala.—The U.S. has added about 650,000 factory jobs since their numbers rebounded after the recession, putting manufacturing workers at 12.1 million and reversing a long decline in such jobs. But uneven growth has created regional disparities in the nation’s overall economic recovery.
Mobile County is among the winners.
Shipbuilder Austal Ltd.’s facility here is busy seven days a week as workers piece together enormous aluminum sheets in a space the size of 13 football fields. It has added thousands of jobs since 2008 and plans more, thanks to huge U.S. Navy contracts.
Airbus Group and BAE Systems PLC, too, are adding factory jobs here. Mobile County created more manufacturing jobs than all but 15 U.S. counties after September 2009, and such jobs were up 31% in the county.
U.S. factory-job gains—driven by a range of factors from cheaper domestic energy to the auto-industry recovery—have concentrated in pockets since the recession, particularly in the Southeast and Midwest, a Wall Street Journal analysis of Labor Department data shows. Gains often have clustered in places like Mobile where taxes are low and unions are relatively weak.
“There is a national manufacturing renaissance that is modest,” he says. “But there is extreme variation across regions and metropolitan areas.”
Of the 2,737 counties the Journal analyzed, 1,695—about 62%—reported gaining at least one net manufacturing job from 2009 to 2013. Job numbers fell in 1,029 counties. The analysis excluded about 400 counties for which comparable data weren’t available.
Some Midwestern counties are especially booming from the vehicle-market recovery, for example, as are some in the South. Recreational-vehicle makers in Elkhart County, Ind., have hired more as sales rebound. Auto plants have added jobs since 2009 in Macomb County, Mich., Rutherford County, Tenn., Troup County, Ga., and elsewhere.
Demand for civilian aircraft has created jobs in places such as Charleston County, S.C, where Boeing Co. BA +0.70% began 787 Dreamliner production in 2011. Biomedical manufacturing has added jobs in Orange County, Calif.
Mobile’s contrast in fortunes with Syracuse since the recession illustrates some common patterns: Often, companies have added jobs in states with “right-to-work” laws—which allow workers in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying union dues—and where taxes are relatively low, in counties where state and local governments provide large incentives and strong vocational education, and in places with access to ports or other transport hubs.
Mobile County, population 414,000, lies along Alabama’s Mobile Bay. It lost jobs in industries like shipbuilding and petrochemicals as the economy slowed. In 2010, things began improving. Of the counties the Journal analyzed, Mobile County ranked 16th in net manufacturing-job creation since 2009. It added 4,421 such jobs, for a total of 18,810 in September 2013.
Alabama’s average state and local tax per capita for 2011—the most recent year available—was 8.3% of income, compared with a national average of 9.8%, says the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank. And 10.7% of Alabama’s workers were union members in 2013, federal data show, below the 11.3% national average and much lower than in Northern states such as New York, Illinois and Ohio.
A key element of Austal’s pitch to the Navy was training. Alabama’s government promised to sponsor training for Austal workers because most job seekers didn’t have shipbuilding experience, says Mike Bell, vice president of operations. Alabama’s workforce-training agency built a $12 million training center next door.