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Business leaders promise a new era of manufacturing in St. Louis

Annika Merrilees, St. Louis Post-Dispatch on

Published in Business News

ST. LOUIS — On Tuesday morning, a former Boeing CEO took the stage before a crowd of Missouri's political and business leaders and offered a bold prediction: After decades of losses in manufacturing, the sector is poised for a turnaround in St. Louis.

Dennis Muilenburg, the former Boeing CEO who chairs the project's board, acknowledged the steep losses the region has suffered. In the 1970s and 1980s, many of St. Louis' manufacturing jobs disappeared, he said, and offshoring and outsourcing have dealt continued hits since then.

But that's all changing, he said.

"We are rebuilding, and rebuilding, and rebuilding manufacturing capability here in St. Louis," Muilenburg told the crowd. "I can assure you, what we're doing here in St. Louis is unique. It is extraordinary. And it will transform the region."

The group was gathered to herald the beginning of construction on the flagship site for the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Center St. Louis, a project that will provide the local industry with workforce training and support for research, development and prototyping.

The new, 150,000-square-foot building will be located on Finney Avenue in St. Louis' Vandeventer neighborhood, across the street from Ranken Technical College. It will have 10 "high bay" facilities for prototyping, and maker spaces for people who want to try techniques like 3-D printing, Muilenburg said. It will have a green space on the roof for community events, and a theater for hosting conferences and unveiling new technologies.

Though the building is slated for completion in mid-2025, Tracy Henke, AMICSTL's chief operating officer, said the group aims to launch some of its programs in 2024, using existing facilities.

"We're not going to wait for the building to start a program," Henke said.

Today the project has just a handful of staffers, Muilenburg said, but he expected the number to grow to around 100 over the course of a couple years. Between them, and the researchers, academics and members of industry who will use the center, it may one day be a workplace for 1,000 or 2,000 people. And it will collaborate with other workforce development programs in the area, like the center city officials are planning one mile east, at the former offices of Killark Electric.

 

Regional civic and workforce development leaders have focused in recent years on advanced manufacturing as a means to add jobs and grow the economy in St. Louis.

Today manufacturing is the region's fourth-largest employer, representing about 9% of jobs in the metro area, according to the latest State of the St. Louis Workforce report. It has grown by about 11,000 jobs here, over a decade, and supports a density of small and medium-sized businesses, which are often suppliers for giants like General Motors and Boeing.

The construction of a center such as AMICSTL was among the wish-list items in the 2030 Jobs Plan released by Greater St. Louis. The plan identified advanced manufacturing as one of five industries that have potential to drive growth in the region — alongside business services, biomedical and health services, logistics, and aerospace, automotive and defense.

Local manufacturers will likely welcome another venue for training the next generations. The sector faces an aging workforce, and businesses have been working harder than ever to sell the industry to young people, and overcome old perceptions about manufacturing jobs.

"Our country has sort of outsourced manufacturing for a couple of decades, and it's told kids that there's not really a future in manufacturing," Muilenburg said. "We need to help them understand, there is a future in manufacturing, and these jobs are on the leading edge of technology. And they're good-paying jobs."

Muilenburg was hired at Boeing in 1985. He held leadership roles in the company's global services and defense businesses before his promotions to COO in 2013 and CEO in 2015. He resigned at the end of 2019, as the company struggled in the wake of the crashes of two 737 Max airliners.

Since then, he founded New Vista Capital, a firm that invests in early-stage aerospace companies, and he's taken on the role of board chair for the AMICSTL project.

"I'm very interested in regional-scale projects — and investing in talent and workforce development here," Muilenburg said.


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