The Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation was chosen by SelectUSA to be part of a competitive research program based on its success in bringing investment from foreign countries into the valley.
SelectUSA, a government program led by the U.S. Department of Commerce, chose the local organization as one of 12 out of 40 applicants to analyze its competitiveness in attracting corporate investment, in part, because of its track record in luring companies such as Safran of France, Fuling Plastics of China, and Primark of Ireland.
Lehigh Valley has “a rich history of Foreign Direct Investment and working with international companies, and it has a solid plan going forward,” said Samantha Luban, research analyst at Ascendant Program Services, which provided analytical support to SelectUSA for the research program.
While the LVEDC collects data on demographics and infrastructure, the research program offered critical insight into enticing foreign and domestic companies to invest in the Lehigh Valley, said Karianne Gelinas, LVEDC vice president of business development and talent supply. In other words, the program helped LVEDC identify the valley’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to attracting business.
The LVEDC is a member of the SelectUSA professional organization. “We are honored to have been selected to be part of the research,” Gelinas said. “We got a lot more information about investment from abroad.”
SelectUSA has facilitated more than $84 billion in investments since its inception more than a decade ago. It has aided in creating or retaining 106,000 jobs working with U.S. and Foreign Commercial Services, according to its website. Its research takes a deep dive into industrial sector strengths and weaknesses, talent supply and other economic indicators in domestic regions.
Members of the LVEDC staff visited England, Germany, France and China to establish personal contacts, Gelinas said. Foreign companies want to know the strength of the workforce, proximity to airports and customers and the weather before they visit an area. The personal connections help, she said, especially for areas like ours that are not well-known to foreign investors.
Among the recent successes from those trips was wooing Norac Foods/bakery, a French maker of baked pasta and frozen desserts that opened a new facility in Forks Township. In addition, SunOpta of Canada announced in February its plan to expand its Upper Macungie Township facility.
The value of working with SelectUSA was understanding what is important to attract companies to the valley. “We were aware of companies overseas but didn’t necessarily have the data to share,” she said.
LVEDC found that location is absolutely critical. Companies look for the ability to move products for export and for domestic customers. Weather, she said, is a factor too. Not only do companies need to know they can move goods all year round, but employees need to be happy in the climates where they work.
LVEDC is a grantee of a Foreign Trade Zone, which reduces tariffs on exports. Lehigh Valley exported $3.8 billion worth of goods in 2019, ranking the region 66th among 386 metro regions in the country. Among its largest exports were chemicals ($1.4 billion) and machinery ($425.8 million). Exports dipped during the pandemic in 2020 but rebounded to more than a $1 billion in the first quarter this year, according to the U.S. Census.
“Lehigh Valley is an attractive market for foreign investment because we have the talent, infrastructure and location in the heart of the densely populated Northeast corridor. Companies value those assets in a competitive global market,” Gelinas said. “The data in SelectUSA’s diagnostic report help us tell that story to national and international companies we want to retain and attract, especially in a time when companies are considering whether to re-shore operations.”
Part of Lehigh Valley’s strength is in its manufacturing sector, Luban said. The industry employs more than 10 percent of the region’s work force and produced in 2019 a $7.1 billion Gross Domestic Product, making Lehigh Valley the 52nd largest manufacturing economy in the nation. Employment in the industry has grown one percent faster than the national average, and the average annual wage is $1,000 more.
The output per worker is nearly $567,000 – about 4.4 percent more than the U.S. average. Among the reasons for a higher output is automation and the production of high value goods. Lehigh Valley has a high concentration of employment in the medical device industry, and iconic employers such as Mack Trucks.
To ensure the workforce is available, Gelinas said, there is a regional collaborative effort to let people know what skills are needed. “In 2018, we did a study to see what jobs were hard to fill,” she said. Through working with partners like the Workforce Board Lehigh Valley, local schools and colleges and technical schools, people know what skills are needed. We give them solid information so they can ensure programs are in place.”
The SelectUSA program is just the latest LVEDC effort to keep track of the region’s economy and business and development trends. The LVEDC recently selected Garner Economics LLC, a nationally recognized economic development consultant, to update LVEDC’s action plan. The LVEDC also contracted with Camoin 310 on an in-depth analysis of Lehigh Valley’s talent supply and demand. It will address how regional and workforce needs have been changed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the top skills employees need now and in the future and other insights that will inform a revised strategic action plan.