Things that Go: Transportation Manufacturing in Oregon

by Henry Fields

June 13, 2019

Some industries are uniquely associated with a community’s self-image. Many prominent examples, such as Boeing’s close association with Seattle, or Detroit’s role as the “motor city,” come from building the equipment that moves us around.

This unique sector, transportation equipment manufacturing, produces nearly all the “things that go” in our world.

Although nowhere in Oregon is immediately associated with the transportation manufacturing sector like Seattle or Detroit, the industry plays an important role in local manufacturing. So when it comes to making things that go, what products start their journey in Oregon?

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (Boats and Bicycles too)

Transportation equipment manufacturing is an odd subsector of manufacturing because it’s defined by what its products will go on to do. While material inputs or production processes define most industries, transportation equipment manufacturing is united by one thing: what comes out will move humans or their things around.

The industry includes a wide range of business types. The major subsectors (in Oregon at least) are:

  • Motor vehicle bodies and trailers: producing the bodies for cars, trucks, motor homes, or trailers.
  • Motor vehicle parts: anything that goes inside or makes up an element of a finished car, truck, or the like.
  • Aerospace: vehicles or parts for aircraft, spacecraft, or missiles.
  • Ships and boats: crafts for water transport. Boats are suitable for personal and recreational use, ships are for commercial, industrial, or military use (such as passenger ships, barges, or submarines).
  • All other: producing anything else used for transportation, such as bicycles, motorcycles, or ATVs. Since Oregon does not have a substantial number of companies in motor vehicle or railroad stock production, these are included here, although in many other states they would make up a standalone part of the industry.
As you might expect for a sector that encompasses cruise ships and bicycles, different economic prospects and areas of strength exist throughout the state. RV and camper production has historically had a significant presence in Lane County and Eastern Oregon. Southern Oregon and Douglas County have a strong history of boat building, whereas shipbuilding is concentrated in shipyards on the coast and along the Columbia River.

Pockets of strength in vehicle parts, aerospace, and other transportation sectors occur throughout the state, often building on infrastructure such as ports or regional airports. Future-oriented companies producing products like electric vehicles and drones continue to develop across the state as well.

Recent Historical Trends

Like many types of manufacturing, transportation equipment took a big hit in the last recession. The national auto industry bailouts of 2008-09 were the result of rapid decline in demand for motor vehicles that devastated the industry. Although not affected to the same degree as Detroit, the Oregon transportation equipment manufacturing industry was vulnerable to these same shocks.

Similar to manufacturing overall, the sector has made progress since the recession, but employment remains well below the level in 2008. From its low point of 9,970 employed in 2009, the number of jobs increased to 12,138 in 2018. In 2006, the industry employed 18,292.

Oregon specializes in some transportation equipment that is more responsive to consumer demands and income. Luxury goods like the high-end RVs that were produced at Monaco and Country Coach in Lane County are very “demand elastic,” meaning that when consumer income dropped in the economic downturn, demand for these non-necessity goods plunged very quickly. Both Monaco and Country Coach would eventually cease operations in Lane County.

In this graph, you can see the trend in employment in each industry of transportation equipment manufacturing. Trends vary based on which part of the sector you look at.

Neither aerospace nor ships and boat building saw much of a decline and have grown since 2001.

The “other” category has declined precipitously; most of this captures the dramatic decline in the RV industry. Many of the major RV employers in Oregon that suffered during the recession built large motor homes on bus chassis and thus fall under heavy-duty truck manufacturing, here grouped with “other.”

Since 2001, the number of jobs in motor vehicle parts has declined substantially (a 35% decrease) and vehicle body and trailers jobs have increased a bit (around 5%) after losses during the recession.

Occupations in the Industry

Most of the largest occupations in transportation equipment manufacturing are production workers like welders, assemblers, and machine operators. There are also prominent career opportunities in quality control, sales, and management.

Further down the occupation list are smaller skilled occupations, such as fiberglass laminators who work on vehicle and boat bodies or mechanical drafters and industrial engineers who specialize in creating and utilizing custom blueprints. As in most advanced manufacturing industries, there are specialized needs for logisticians and industrial production managers to keep business running smoothly.

Industry Outlook – Stuck in Neutral?

While things have certainly improved since 2009, the transportation equipment manufacturing industry has ground left to cover. The number employed in the industry has been flat in recent years, declining slightly from a recent peak in mid-2015. Even at its highest point since the recession, the numbers employed were still about two-thirds of the total in 2006.

The good news is that while there was some substantial economic disruption over the past 10 years, the sector is diverse enough that some areas can continue to grow even while others struggle.

The Portland area has had some good news recently. Daimler is converting a factory to produce electric trucks> in the area, and Portland shipbuilder Vigor Industrial was selected to build new U.S. Army landing crafts (although technically the work will take place in Vancouver, WA).

At the same time, the recovery is fragile in other parts of the state. Earlier this year, Winnebago announced it was shifting production from Junction City to its Iowa location, dealing the Lane County RV industry a further blow. Insitu, a division of Boeing that produces drone technology in the Columbia Gorge, recently announced layoffs in Hood River.

The nature of the things that go in our lives will always be changing, but through the industry’s ups and downs, those in transportation equipment manufacturing can take comfort in one thing. As long as humans need to get around, there will always be demand for the machines that help us do so.

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