A century ago, Baltimore was the fourth-largest clothing manufacturing city in the country, with more than 23,000 people making men’s and women’s apparel, according to a report by Sage Policy Group for the Manufacturers’ Alliance of Maryland.
Across the state, Western Maryland’s manufacturing industry got a big boost during World War II, when workers at a Celanese plant made a synthetic yarn, Foristan, used in parachutes. Employment there peaked at 13,000 in the 1940s.
These days, yarn and clothing are not big components of Maryland’s manufacturing sector, with only a little more than 3,000 workers in apparel and textile mills, according to 2010 state labor figures. Companies that make electronic parts, fabricated steel and transportation equipment, as well as those processing chemicals and food, employ the most manufacturing workers.
Some segments that were big in the past, such as making airplanes for the Pentagon, are still important elements of the state’s manufacturing industry. But giants such as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have more high-tech production facilities.
“You don’t see a lot of assembly lines these days,” said Gene Burner, president of the Manufacturers’ Alliance of Maryland.
Some of the job losses in manufacturing may reflect a shift in job classification, as companies have outsourced accounting, payroll and other duties that were once done in-house. But it’s clear that the manufacturing landscape has changed.
At Rockville Steel & Manufacturing in Gaithersburg, which makes steel rooftop supporters, stairs, awnings, balcony rails and other metallic products, the actual work hasn’t changed much in the past two decades, said company President Tom Steffes. There have been some technological changes, but what’s mostly changed is the industry, he said.
“We have to compete more to get projects,” Steffes said.
In the 1990s, the company made reinforced steel for executive offices in the White House and under the Jefferson Memorial, as well as security window guards for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
“We’re reinforcing things you never see,” Steffes said.
But government work has dwindled, forcing manufacturers to spend more time pursuing new markets, such as other nations and universities, he said.
Last year, the most popular product exported from Maryland was transportation equipment with $2.5 billion worth, according to federal trade figures. That segment ranked third in 1999 with $658 million. Computer and electronic products was the dominant segment in 1999 with almost $1 billion worth exported, but ranked third in 2011 with $1.55 billion.
Manufacturing accounts for 89 percent of exports in Maryland, according to the National Association of Manufacturers.
While Maryland’s manufacturing job base continues to dwindle, there remains some promise, Burner and others say. The state’s top manufacturing segments have suffered less dramatic declines in activity in recent years, according to the Sage report.
“Moreover, Maryland retains an expanding manufacturing export sector, led by high value-added segments such as transportation equipment, chemicals, electronics and machinery,” the report says.