Manufacturing Muscle

Missouri is flexing it, tripling the national average in job growth for that sector in a post-pandemic recovery.

By Dennis Boone


Not far across the state line from the vacation playground of Myrtle Beach, S.C., a fellow by the name of Ted Abernathy is part of a group of policy experts who crunch data and offer their insights to local governments and companies about what they discern reading economic tea leaves.

Their base in Shallotte, N.C., is more than 900 miles from St. Louis, but even from that vantage point, Abernathy and his cohorts can see something happening in Missouri that stands out. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, his group said last year, total manufacturing employment in Missouri had grown 5.7 percent.

The rest of the nation? A comparatively puny 1.6 percent. Abernathy’s team at Economic Leadership LLC said Missouri had more than tripled the national rebound pace by adding more than 30,000 net new jobs in manufacturing between 2010 and 2022.

“The change in manufacturing jobs over the last 12 years has been a real resurgence that not a lot of people were predicting,” Abernathy said in a report prepared for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve seen a manufacturing renaissance that we think is just going to get stronger as we go forward.”

“Many people still have an antiquated idea of what manufacturing looks like,” said Dan Mehan, president and CEO of the statewide chamber. “Today’s manufacturing jobs are some of the most high-tech and high-paying. Missouri’s heritage was built on making things, and we are excited to see our state take the lead in bringing these opportunities back.”

Not all industry sectors were equally slammed by the pandemic, so rates of recovery vary substantially. But the advantages that fell to Missouri, from an employment perspective, came in manufacturing, construction, and financial services. On a more granular level, the strongest recoveries came in Joplin and Springfield, with the Kansas City-Columbia-Jefferson City corridor posting solid gains. St. Louis and St. Joseph, more than two years after the onset of the pandemic, still had the most ground yet to regain.

The conditions, Abernathy said in the chamber report, suggest that the state has set itself up for continued momentum: “In certain sectors, Missouri seems to have found its footing for future growth,” he said.

Leading the way for that growth has been the automotive manufacturing sector, which saw workers from Ford and General Motors turning out a combined average of more than 10,000 vehicles a week in 2022—topping 562,000 for the year. This, despite a long, global break in supply chains that halted production on assembly lines because computer chips were in short supply.

But it stood to reason that the Missouri auto plants—and the suppliers who provide key components—would rebound strongly, given that the nation’s two biggest automakers had pumped nearly $4.5 billion into improvements since 2010 at the Ford plant in Claycomo and the GM plant in Wentzville.

Formula for Growth

Missouri’s highly competitive position in manufacturing, as we’ve seen elsewhere in this edition, flows from a combination of strategic advantages, including rock-bottom cost of living levels, which hold down payrolls for employers while at the same time giving employees access to a quality of life that simply can’t be found on the coasts.

As a result, companies in a wide array of industry sectors have located their operations in Missouri. In addition to motor vehicles, the state is a powerhouse for the production of food and beverages, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals used by various industries around the world.

The labor force is another consideration, drawing on more than 3 million educated workers—from high school graduates to doctoral recipients—out of a working-age population of nearly 3.9 million people. 

Factors like that drive business decisions that might not seem obvious on the surface. Consider the case of pet-product giant Purina, which in 2021 completed a $250 million expansion of its cat-litter factory in Bloomfield. That city not far from the Missouri Bootheel—a town, really—has a population of just 1,765. But the company saw fit to invest a quarter-billion into a plant upgrade to churn out the No. 1 cat litter brand in the nation, Tidy Cats. As a result, the plant’s workforce was increased by 20 percent.

Again: That comes to 450 jobs, making the site a jobs magnet not just in Bloomfield or Stoddard County but across southeast Missouri. Clearly, the folks at Purina are onto something.