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Greenville Business Magazine


Jul 03, 2017 01:58PM ● By Makayla Gay

By John Jeter

Don Erickson sits in his second-floor office just off Terminal Road at the South Carolina Technology & Aviation Center when a pair of supersonic military aircrafts zip past his picture window, seconds after taking off from the World War II-era airfield in rural Greenville County.

Erickson looks out, smiles, and then begins to sound like a Greenville economic-development pitchman. He’s actually the director of the 276-acre site for Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s largest aerospace and defense companies, which produced those two airplanes.

“We’ve had to evolve over the years, much like Greenville has,” he says, “and we continue to push the envelope of being able to offer new and different opportunities for both our workforce, as well as the community, through the different platforms we’re working on”—14 different aircraft models.

Lockheed now hopes to add another to its roster. Last March, the Bethesda, Md.-based giant, which posted $47.2 billion net revenues in 2016, submitted its bid to the Air Force to manufacture up to 350 fighter-trainer jets, the T-50a, in Greenville. Built in collaboration with Korean Aerospace Industries, the aircraft would be the first military planes tip-to-tail, fully produced in South Carolina.

The contract, which is expected to be awarded at the end of 2017 or early part of 2018, is estimated from $10 billion to as much as $16 billion, according to various reports, with four other aerospace teams competing for what’s considered the largest contract of the decade.

If Lockheed wins, the company would add about 200 employees to its workforce of 500 to build as many as 48 jets a year.

Mike Evers is among the plane-makers.

Now 58, he arrived as a mechanic-technician in Greenville, along with his wife, Cara, and son, Shane, in 1986, a year after Lockheed landed at SC-TAC. Evers first saw Greenville—he fell in love with Pretty Place, near Jones Gap—during a 1978 visit.

“It’s a very good-paying job,” the crew chief says. “They’re artisans who work on this aircraft, they’re highly skilled. Their compensation, it goes back into the community, and they’re well-educated, their families get good jobs.” Aerospace workers earn an average of $70,000 a year, almost 70 percent higher than the manufacturing-sector wage.

Lockheed’s Greenville payroll has totaled around $1.7 billion over three decades, Erickson says, noting that roughly 80 percent of his workforce is homegrown and average employee tenure is about 13 years. In addition, Lockheed is the largest and oldest tenant at the 2,500-acre SC-TAC.

“The area itself,” Evers says, “the scenery, the location, the climate, the mountains; being from Florida, I’ve been fascinated by the mountains. The lakes”—he’s planning on buying a boat—“everything we have to do around here.”

Not to mention giving back to the community. Erickson estimates his crew volunteers as many as 6,500 hours each year to such organizations as Habitat for Humanity, United Way, March of Dimes, the Heart Walk, theater productions, and the Upcountry History Museum.

Aerospace now contributes to the future. Of the more than 400 aviation and aerospace companies in South Carolina, Lockheed is among the third of those located in the Upstate. The sector’s annual economic impact on the state totals $19 billion, with more than 53,000 employees.

Lockheed contributes statewide, too. After the devastating 2015 floods in the Midlands, the company donated $25,000 to relief efforts to support recovery costs for military veterans and their families. The Greenville site also gave $30,000 to the Greenville Tech Foundation; Erickson often points to the technical college’s aviation program as a workforce pipeline.

That Lockheed selected Greenville as the site to potentially build the T-50a and that Congress in March approved the sale of $2.7 billion worth of F-16 fighters to Bahrain, with Lockheed moving the jets’ production from Fort Worth, speaks to Greenville’s capabilities.

“It says that we can assemble and maintain some of the most sophisticated and technologically intensive machinery in the world,” says Mark Farris, CEO and president of the Greenville Area Development Corp. “It’s the evolution of manufacturing, in the sense that the specifications for the parts for the aircraft are so extreme—it’s a fine and precise manufacturing process—that it has to be done by highly skilled employees.”

For Evers, his job transcends the high-flying accolades. “Who doesn’t like to see big airplanes flying around, fast airplanes? I’m proud to be part of this. I get goosebumps every time I see one I’ve worked on. We play a very important role, what we do out here in Lockheed.”