Northeast Ohio Manufacturing Survives

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Next year, Steve Peplin is looking forward to celebrating the 25th anniversary of his metal stamping company, Talan Products, on Cleveland's east side. But, some people are surprised he has anything to celebrate.

PEPLIN: I'd be at a cocktail party, and I'd introduce myself as being in manufacturing, and I once had a girl say to me, "Oh, that's too bad. I'm really sorry to hear that."

Peplin says too many people assume manufacturing is dead, but a visit to his plant indicates otherwise. Huge sheets of stainless steel and aluminum roll through machines that spit out thousands of stamped products an hour --- everything from paint trays to door latches. Clients include many of the major household product companies, plus a number of other familiar names, like General Electric, Toyota and Firestone. It's been a booming business --- except for last year.

PEPLIN: We were down 30% in '09. We had our first layoffs in 24 years --- which was pretty traumatic. But then, 2010 has been fantastic. The recovery for us started pretty late in '09.

Talan is a small company that employs 65 people --- but 20 of those are new hires. Such growth is part of a trend recently noted in a report from the Brookings Institution. Jennifer Bradley is part of a Brookings research team that tracks the economic recovery progress of the nation's top 100 metropolitan areas. Last month, they ranked Greater Cleveland as number two in manufacturing job growth for the second quarter of this year. Even more surprising ---Youngstown was ranked as number one. But, Bradley says it's not time to break out the champagne, just yet.

BRADLEY: The thing about Northeast Ohio, and the Great Lakes area in general is that, for them, the Great Recession was a big shove down an already downhill slope. The challenges began long before the onset of the recession.

While the rest of the nation suffered a five and a half percent loss of jobs in the past four years, Northeast Ohio has been battling back from job losses over seven percent. And that's not even counting the thousands of jobs lost since the beginning of the decade. That means we've got further to go to get back up that downhill slope.

HELPER: So, the glass of manufacturing in Cleveland was mostly empty and now it's filling up a little bit.

Susan Helper also tracks business trends as part of her research work at Case Western Reserve University. She says the job growth news needs to be put in context.

HELPER: I think there's still a possibility of a future decline. We're still seeing extremely high rates of unemployment. If you look at under-employment and people who have stopped looking for jobs, the rates get even higher. Consumers can't prop up their income by borrowing, as they used to do, because the value of their houses has gone down. And so, consumer demand, which has historically been the engine of the economy is still quite weak.

But… that economic engine is still running. Astro Manufacturing in Lake County makes everything from naval torpedoes to medical CT scan machines. Vice President Rich Peterson says business is on the uptick and the Help Wanted sign is back out.

PETERSON: We've hired 35 people since the first of the year.

And he's heard similar stories from other nearby companies.

PETERSON: It's coming back…it's got a long way to go…and it's going to be different than it used to be. Instead of the large companies that employ 3 - to - 4,000 people, now you'll have 20-25 companies that'll employ a hundred people.

Business professor Susan Helper says manufacturing has gotten a bad rap over the decades. She thinks there isn't enough respect for an industrial tradition that has helped define Northeast Ohio, and still gives us an edge over national and international competitors.

HELPER: I think there's depths and depths of skill here. There are generations of families that have gone into manufacturing here…tricks of the trade that are known better here than elsewhere…machines can come up again more quickly because people have seen the problems before. So, there's a lot of heritage here that you don't find in Alabama or Mississippi, let alone in other countries.

Steve Peplin of Talan Products comes from a manufacturing family. He and those before him have seen and solved problems before. Maybe that history is what makes him so optimistic about the future of his company.

PEPLIN: This is a solar thermal heating system. It warms water from the sun. …We anticipate 100% growth on this, annual, for quite awhile.

From solar heaters…to wind turbines…to electric cars, there will always be new things to make. And in Northeast Ohio, there's plenty of experience to draw from.

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