A Conversation With: Don Cunningham, president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp.
LVB: The manufacturing sector has changed a great deal in the Lehigh Valley over the last few decades. How is today’s manufacturing different than it was, say 30 years ago?
Cunningham: It’s much more diversified and larger. That may surprise some people. But manufacturing in the Lehigh Valley has more economic output today than ever before.
The combined GDP of the roughly 750 companies that produce goods and make products in the Lehigh Valley is $8.4 billion a year. That represents nearly 20 percent of our total economy. To put that in perspective, manufacturing is 12 percent of the total United States economy.
What that translates to is the Lehigh Valley is often one of the 50 largest markets in the country for making products. That’s significant because we are not in the top 50 markets in the U.S. by population.
Throughout our history, the Lehigh Valley has been a center of manufacturing and production in the United States. What is made here has evolved with the times as the domestic and international economies have changed.
What hasn’t changed is our position as a place of makers and producers. Nearly one-third of the consumers in the U.S. live within an eight-hour drive of the Lehigh Valley and we are a vital part of their supply chain for producing and delivering goods and products.
If people think the U.S. no longer makes things, they really need to come to the Lehigh Valley.
LVB: Is manufacturing still a large part of the Lehigh Valley’s economy?
Cunningham: It’s the largest part our economy again. It took us nearly 20 years since the closing and bankruptcy of Bethlehem Steel to build manufacturing back to being the region’s top economic sector, but we’ve done it.
There are 38,000 total manufacturing jobs here and it’s been steadily growing. But it’s much different today, much more diversified.
There are very few large employers of thousands of people except for Mack Trucks that has a workforce of about 2,500 people. The typical manufacturing operation today utilizes a lot of automation and technology and has a workforce of about 40 people. This has allowed for the growth of American manufacturing.
The manufacturing worker today is much more educated and trained, often requiring significant trade and information technology skills. The key to a vibrant manufacturing economy is to have a lot of smaller manufacturers making a wide range of goods and products. We no longer have all our proverbial eggs – or jobs – in just one or two big baskets.
LVB: What types of manufacturers call Lehigh Valley their home?
Cunningham: This is always the most difficult question to answer because the answer is just about everything. That said, there are some significant clusters, many that would surprise people. We still make a lot of consumer products from Crayola crayons to Martin Guitars to Samuel Adams beer and Ocean Spray juices.
Curtis-Wright, Lehigh Heavy Forge, and D. Gillette Industrial Services are making aeronautic and submarine parts for the nation’s defense contractors.
There are dozens of precision machine shops turning out pieces for just about every high-tech electronic and consumer product. There’s also really fun stuff like all the food, beverage, and pet food products. There’s not enough space here to list it all.
LVB: What draws manufacturers to locate operations in the Lehigh Valley, and what do we have that helps them succeed?
Cunningham: This one is simple. Our location and skilled workforce. We can serve one-third of the U.S. consumers in a short drive.
We’re one hour from the ports of Newark and Philadelphia. But, most importantly, we have the educational infrastructure: some of the country’s best high school level career and technical schools, community colleges and engineering colleges. It’s all about the talent.
Most importantly, it’s in our DNA. We’ve been making things here since the 1740s. It’s what the Lehigh Valley does.