Aerospace Industry Cluster Surging Ahead in 2015

Aerospace is an emerging industry cluster in South Carolina. The SC Council on Competitiveness entered a partnership agreement in 2014 with the SC Department of Commerce to develop and strengthen the cluster.

Deborah Cameron headshot
Deborah Cameron

I recently sat down with our Director of Aerospace Initiatives, Deborah Cameron, to discuss her work so far. She recapped an eventful year and gave me a preview of what’s next.

Q: Aerospace made a big splash in 2014. Tell me a little bit about your work to develop the cluster since you joined SC Council on Competitiveness in November 2013.

I joined the SC Council Team in November 2013, along with Wayne Fritz, who recently retired from the Department of Commerce as a Senior Project Manager. There were two main opportunities that we wanted to carry forward.

Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt had appointed the S.C. Aerospace Task Force, an advisory council of public and private sector leaders for the development of the state’s aerospace industry. The Task Force finalized a Strategic Plan in October 2013 that made recommendations and established priorities to move the industry forward through statewide communication and collaboration.

The second opportunity was an Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership (IMCP) grant awarded to the SC Council on Competitiveness from the US Department of Commerce. The grant was for planning purposes – to develop a plan that would advance the aerospace industry cluster in South Carolina. So my initial work was to implement the grant, using the Task Force’s Plan as a guide.

The Task Force had a fairly good inventory of the resources in place which support the industry sector and we began to reach out to those resources and companies and meet with them. We also partnered with USC’s McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research to commission an economic impact study.

The study allowed us to see firm-level data right away. It helped us understand who the companies are and to have a better sense of the landscape. Developing relationships with the individual companies and connecting them to one another is so important to strengthening the cluster. A lot of times companies don’t have the resources to make those connections on their own.

We are also able to uncover potential expansion projects for the Department of Commerce in these individual visits that may not have been discovered as quickly or at all.

Q: Your efforts in the first year also contributed to the state’s first-ever Aerospace Industry Day. How did that come about?

I was already meeting with the McNair Center regularly and they had been discussing an industry conference/expo, which we had that on my to-do list as well. I had also developed a partnership early on with SC Aviation Association which hosts an annual dinner. The three organizations decided to partner and make the conference the daytime event, then connect it with the Aviation Association dinner.

We expected about 200 with 12 exhibit spaces, but we ended up with 420 registrations and 30 exhibit booths. Plans are already in the works for the event in 2015. It will be a two-day event this year and we will offer much more exhibit space. Registration will open after the first of the year, and information will be available on the SC Council website.

SC Aerospace Industry Day, August 2014

Q:  Other than the second-annual conference and Industry Day, what’s on the agenda for 2015 to make sure the aerospace cluster in South Carolina continues to be successful?

Following the success of Industry Day in August and the expiration of the IMCP grant in September, the SC Council on Competitiveness and the SC Department of Commerce entered a partnership agreement to make sure that we continue our forward momentum.

We plan to meet with 50 of the existing SC aerospace companies in 2015.  Through these meetings, we continue to learn about the individual companies and the forward and backward parts of their supply chain.  We discover what kind of work they are having to outsource to other states because they have a challenge finding vendors here.  We try to make better connections with companies who are already here so that the work stays in SC or the southeast.  We have been successful in making several connections already.

We also meet to understand what companies’ needs and challenges are and strive to connect them with the resources they need as well as gathering ideas for future services we could develop to assist the sector.  We often make referrals to SCMEP, the export folks at the Department of Commerce, and company to company connections in terms of capabilities that companies may not necessarily be aware of.

We will be hosting several smaller events to better connect the industry.  In early December, we brought together members of the support chain to understand what individual support entities are  working on and to make sure everyone is working together.   We also have a networking event for the companies scheduled for January 30th.

We publish an e-newsletter to help educate the industry on what individual companies are doing and will continue that monthly.  We also have plans to update the SC Aerospace website and implement some tools for new and existing companies on the site.

Ultimately, our goal is better alignment and increased productivity of the industry through the collaboration and communication we are building.  When the industry is highly productive and we have built an infrastructure for the industry, it makes it easier for existing companies to expand and to attract new companies.  This means more jobs, and because of the economic impact study, we know these are high-wage jobs with an average total compensation of $71,000 per year.

Q:  What is your take on the progress so far?

One of the things I am really pumped about is the level of excitement of companies and other stakeholders (K-12 education, technical colleges, etc.).  They are really interested in what role they can play in building the cluster.  The level of cooperation and collaboration is extraordinary.  The challenge is to keep the momentum going and moving in the right direction.

Q:  How do you define and measure success of your efforts?

Success will be a number of things.  I hope that we have an active, strong group of aerospace companies that are comfortable working together.  This creates an environment that is appealing to new aerospace companies locating in South Carolina, as well as existing companies expanding in South Carolina.  I would also like to see a greater number of companies earning certifications that are required by the industry in order to compete for work.  

In terms of measurement, we hope to update the economic study every two years.  A couple of critical things we will monitor are the number of aerospace firms and increases in employment.  We are also researching how we are competing with other states in the Southeast so that we can build and maintain a competitive edge.

 Deborah Cameron has twenty years in economic development at the state and regional level.  She has a B.A. from the University of Maryland in Political Science and a M.B.A. from Johns Hopkins University.

For more information on SC Aerospace, visit the SC Council on Competitiveness and SC Aerospace online.