Long-marinating plans to diversify Greater Washington’s economy beyond its outsized dependence on the federal government got a shot in the arm Wednesday with the news that Micron Technology Inc. will invest $3 billion at its Manassas manufacturing plant and create 1,100 new jobs.
That the catalyst is a manufacturing initiative — in this case, a push by the Boise, Idaho-based semiconductor company to expand its memory chip production capabilities — is a “pleasant surprise,” said longtime regional economist Stephen Fuller.
That’s because Greater Washington’s manufacturing base is “a tiny little sector, very specialized,” he said — in July it accounted for 55,900 jobs in the metro area, about 1.7 percent of all jobs.
At the same time, “it’s one that we should be better at,” Fuller said. “We are so skewed to professional business services and the government — federal, state and local — and health and education and tourism. That’s 90 percent of the economy.”
What a manufacturing expansion, like the kind Micron (NASDAQ: MU) unveiled Wednesday in Manassas with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in attendance, offers is the prospect of good jobs that don’t require extensive college degrees and specialized skill sets as seen with software development and engineering. That’s the better narrative to emerge, Fuller added, and could fuel regional efforts dating back years to grow the DMV’s presence in the global economy.
A plan unveiled in January 2017 called for a dedicated, independent regional organization to help businesses find overseas markets for their products and services. It was the result of a nearly yearlong effort led by Bob Sweeney, now at American University’s Kogod School of Business, and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, along with the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area.
The focus on exports grew from Greater Washington’s entrance in early 2016 into the Global Cities Initiative, a program by the Brookings Institution (and sponsored by JPMorgan Chase) to develop export strategies for 29 cities around the world.
In January 2016, The 2030 Group, a consortium of businesses and organizations promoting regional cooperation to spur economic growth, released a report crafted by Fuller that outlined obstacles such as traffic and affordability that currently threaten regional growth. Fuller said a regional effort to diversify the economy in the next 10 years could lead to the creation of an additional 400,000 jobs. The region could grow 4 percent through 2025 with the status quo, but has the potential to grow 14 percent.
Micron Technology (NASDAQ: MU) employs about 1,500 at its Manassas plant. Pending Virginia General Assembly approval, the company is getting among the largest, if not the largest, incentive packages offered by the state to any business — and it offers a taste of what’s to come if Northern Virginia lands Amazon.com Inc.’s (NASDAQ: AMZN) second headquarters.