I shudder whenever anyone talks about employment and job security in the electronics industry. With an interest in the history of electronics, I may have been among the least surprised when 3M recently announced it would lay off 240 “flexible electronic assembly” workers in its plant at 5400 Paris Road.
This news represents a huge blow to the region’s economy, and it would be folly to think otherwise. 3M was the lead of a small coterie of light manufacturers recruited almost 30 years ago in an effort to broaden the region’s economic base—enticed to locate here based on various advantages long proclaimed for the area.
While few of us actually knew exactly what 3M manufactured at its plant, we witnessed several plant expansions, and by 1998, employment was up to 950. A closer look at 3M’s employment record, however, shows the typical ebbs and flows of employment with layoffs in 1982, 1985, 2003 and 2005, while there were also additions along the way and a big boost by 1998.
Doing some quick math, if one of each of the 240 terminated 3M employees makes $40,000 a year, the annual payroll loss alone will be $9.6 million. With each employee typically the breadwinner of the family, the denial of funds to significant others and children compounds the impact of each job lost even more.
3M’s terse press release says the company is transferring production of flexible electronic circuits to plants in California and Singapore, something that should surprise none of us—especially the Singapore part. Employment in electronics in this country has been moving overseas since the mid-1950s, and in hindsight, maybe our pursuit of 3M 30 years ago was misplaced. It looks like we should have been paying more attention to what 3M was making and what the manufacturing trends were relative to the rest of the world.
By the time the 3M plant opened in December 1970, domestic job losses in electronics due to offshore competition were already well established in the United States. Domestic production of consumer electronics was in free fall. Zenith Radio stood fast the longest, fighting trade and tariff restriction battles at the highest levels—but to little avail—while assembling TV sets in its Springfield, Mo., plant well into the ’80s (though, it should be noted, with many parts in plants overseas).
Perhaps there’s still reason for some optimism at 3M’s Columbia plant, but I doubt it. This plant is probably marked for ultimate extinction. While many of the brilliant discoveries in electronics have come out of research done in this country, the ultimate production and manufacturing process these days almost invariably and inevitably occurs somewhere overseas.
Columbia must move on. I’m particularly alarmed by the passive, almost indifferent, attitude generally noted across the city in the aftermath of this jolting announcement. Doesn’t anyone share my concern that an almost $10 million payroll is going away while 240 men and women have to slug it out either here or somewhere else to find jobs?
I hear the same old time-worn platitudes about “quality of life,” which—whatever that means—ends up being bought and paid for from taxes and other revenues, much of which is gained by those of us who work for a living. As I write this on a salubrious sunny day, Columbia is hardly alone or even particularly distinctive in competing with many other communities across the land in the “quality of life” realm.
I believe 3M is a wilting enterprise here, so it’s time for us to move on. It’s time to bring in the shock troops and start emulating the economic development efforts perhaps under way more successfully elsewhere. Where are the business leaders to do this, the cadres who will lead Columbia after this temporary economic setback? But then, maybe we won’t want to grow and move forward. At times I sense the community just wants to languish and take it easy for awhile. Then, see what happens to the so-called “quality of life” when the tax base starts to shrivel up and contract.
Al Germond is the host of the “Sunday Morning Roundtable” every Sunday at 8:15 a.m. on kfru. He can be reached at [email protected]