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How San Diego's Manufacturing Sector Has Changed, in Three Charts

At one point, most of San Diego’s manufacturing jobs came from aerospace. Now got a far more diverse crop of companies, but they tend to hire far fewer workers.

Middle-class jobs are in increasingly short supply in San Diego, which is why local leaders want to lure more  manufacturing gigs to the region.

The average manufacturing job pays more than the region’s median income and manufacturing workers more frequently move up through the ranks as they get more experience.

But San Diego, like many other metros across the nation, has shed lots of manufacturing jobs in the last half century.

Most of San Diego County’s manufacturing jobs were once tied to the defense industry. Today, the local sector’s dominated by smaller companies that build smaller products.

Cutbacks at some big San Diego companies, particularly those tied to aerospace, have radically reshaped San Diego’s manufacturing sector.

Decades of state Employment Development Department data collected by economist Kelly Cunningham of the National University System of Policy Research, reveal just how much it’s shifted.

San Diego’s shed more than 37,000 manufacturing jobs since the late 1980s.

As you can see, San Diego’s manufacturing ranks hit their peak in 1989, when the sector supplied nearly 132,000 jobs. This was just before the Persian Gulf War.

So where did all those jobs go?

This chart shows just how much San Diego manufacturing employment has ebbed and flowed along with aerospace companies here.

For a time, aircraft builder General Dynamics was one of the region’s largest employers, and staffing tended to spike when the U.S. was at war.

Then the defense industry majorly downsized in the 1990s.

General Dynamics eventually shuttered Missile Park, a Kearny Mesa campus where it built Tomahawk missiles. Other defense companies later reduced staffing here or moved jobs elsewhere.

About 60,000 San Diegans lost defense industry jobs in 18 months alone, which added fuel to ongoing discussions about the need for the region to rely less on one sector for so many jobs, according to Mary Walshok and Abraham Shragge’s book about San Diego’s innovation economy.

Two decades later, only about 7,000 San Diegans work in aerospace manufacturing. That makes up about 7 percent of the overall sector.

Computer and electronic-tied manufacturers command a greater presence, making up about 25 percent of the pie.

San Diego’s also home to more manufacturing companies. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show there are now more than 3,000 manufacturing companies in the county.

What’s changed is that most companies hire far fewer people.

This means that while San Diego’s economy now boasts a lot more kinds of manufacturing jobs – everything from solar panel producers to burger makers and medical device builders – we aren’t considered a manufacturing boomtown.

San Diego manufacturers supply only about 9 percent of county jobs, a smaller chunk than cities like Portland or Seattle. And we’ve also got fewer manufacturing jobs.

 

This is part of our quest digging into the difficulties – real or perceived – of doing business in San Diego. Check out the previous story in our series, San Diego’s Venture Capital Problem, and the next, How San Diego Swapped One Government Moneymaker for Another.

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