Monday, September 03, 2007

North Carolina's biotechnology boom is an example of why U.S. manufacturing is still strong

"As lawmakers pursue legislation aimed at softening the blow from factory closures, and as the downside of trade emerges as a talking point in the 2008 presidential campaign, it might seem that manufacturing is a dying part of the U.S. economy," writes Peter Goodman of The Washington Post. "But ... the United States makes more manufactured goods today than at any time in history, as measured by the dollar value of production adjusted for inflation -- three times as much as in the mid-1950s, the supposed heyday of American industry."

Goodman says "North Carolina encapsulates the forces remaking American manufacturing," because it is replacing traditional factory jobs with high-tech work in such fields as biotechnology. In the last few years, North Carolina has suffered the shriveling of two traditional industries, textiles and furniture. But big changes in the state's other traditional industry, tobacco, are helping the state become a leader in biotechnology.

When the national settlement with cigarette manufacturers signaled big changes in tobacco, leading to the end of federal quotas and price supports, North Carolina set aside half its settlement money for the long-term economic advancement of the No. 1 tobacco state. The largest area of investment has been in biotechnology, primarily in programs at North Carolina State University, North Carolina Central University and the state's community colleges. Here is the annual report of the Golden LEAF Foundation, which makes the grants. (Here is our comparison of settlement spending in North Carolina and Kentucky, which had the most tobacco farmers, earmarked half its settlement for agriculture and has given most of it to improve its cattle industry.)

Goodman writes about North Carolina's biotechnology program, which "seeks students from declining areas of manufacturing," and some of its graduates, such as former Yadkinville textile worker Regina Whitaker, in photo by Goodman. She's a lab technician at Targacept, "a biotech start-up in Winston-Salem that was spun off from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. Where the tobacco giant had researched the use of nicotine to make people crave cigarettes, Targacept is focusing on the nicotine receptors in the brain to develop drugs for Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia. Whitaker said her salary is 'significantly more' than the $13.40 an hour she made at the yarn factory." She told Goodman, "I'm not struggling now. Before, it was paycheck to paycheck." (Read more)

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