The following script is from “The Golden Triangle,” which aired on Dec. 4, 2016. Bill Whitaker is the correspondent. Marc Lieberman and Michael Kaplan, producer.
This past week, Donald Trump cut his first deal as president-elect. He leaned on Carrier, the heating and air conditioning company, to keep 1,000 jobs in Indiana from going to Mexico. The company got a generous tax break in return. In the last few decades, America has lost millions of factory jobs offshore. But you might be surprised to learn U.S. manufacturing is showing signs of coming back due to cheap energy, proximity to customers, and a rising cost of labor in China. Nearly a million manufacturing jobs have been created since the Great Recession. About 350,000 are unfilled because factories can’t find properly trained American workers. The new plants demand more brainpower than brawn. It’s called advanced manufacturing and if you want to see what it looks like you need to go a place off the beaten track: The Golden Triangle. That’s a bit of a misnomer because it’s one of the poorest regions in the poorest state: Mississippi.
If you have heard of the Golden Triangle, it might be because of this: Mississippi State football. Around here, everybody loves the Bulldogs. And “bulldog” is an apt description of the man who runs economic development for the area: Joe Max Higgins. He considers job creation a full contact sport.
Joe Max Higgins: The only way we win any deal is to tear off everybody else’s face. We gotta kill everybody to win the deal.
Ferocity is a job requirement. During the recession, unemployment in some parts of the Triangle got as high as 20 percent.
Joe Max Higgins: We’re going to come up with a program.
At 6.0 percent, unemployment is now just above the national average and a lot of people here credit Joe Max Higgins. He has attracted $6 billion of advanced industry including this mill run by Steel Dynamics. It’s one of the most hi-tech steel mills in the country. He got this helicopter factory up and running. Truck maker PACCAR used to build engines only in Europe. It opened its first U.S. plant in the Triangle.
Bill Whitaker: Companies were moving around, this offshoring. They were going to countries where everything’s cheaper?
Joe Max Higgins: For some companies, offshore wasn’t as great as they thought it was or as it was portrayed to be. Many of the companies said “Hey, if it’s gonna be consumed in the U.S., we can produce it in the U.S. cheaper and more efficiently than we can elsewhere and bring it in.”
Bill Whitaker: They save money by being here in Mississippi?
Joe Max Higgins: Uh-huh.
Higgins has brought in 6,000 jobs to the tri-county area since 2003. That might not sound like a lot to people in big cities. But to the people here in the small towns of the Golden Triangle, it amounts to about half the manufacturing jobs lost during the last 25 years. Through the 1990s, factories here produced textiles, toys, and tubing. One by one, they shut down and thousands of low skilled jobs vanished.
Bill Whitaker: So where’d all these jobs go?
Joe Max Higgins: Well, a lotta those people just left. They were so devastated by Artech’s closing, Flexible Flyer’s closing, Blazon Tube closing, how ‘bout that? I mean, just bam, bam, bam, the hits just keep on coming.
Joe Max Higgins was hired away from his economic development job in Arkansas to stop the hemorrhaging here in the Triangle. He makes $250,000 a year, paid by a partnership of the three counties and local businesses. People here will tell you he earns every penny. He’s like a very demanding head coach.
Joe Max Higgins: There’s no taking plays off never, OK? I tell our staff, “If you leave our office and– and you didn’t do somethin’ to make our place a better place today, then you need to find another job.”
Bill Whitaker: You sound like a coach.
Joe Max Higgins: Well, it’s probably what I should be.
Right away, he coached his small staff to the Triangle’s biggest win in 50 years. They beat out Louisiana, Missouri and Arkansas – convincing the steel mill that building here was its smartest and cheapest option. Since 2007, 24 hours a day, scrap metal is dumped into giant buckets, lifted into an electric furnace and melted down in a fiery display. In the old days, a mill like this would have needed 4,000 workers. Here it takes only 650 to churn out more than 3 million tons of steel a year. Electrician Jared Glover took us as close to the blazing furnace as you can get.
Bill Whitaker: This is all automated?
Jared Glover: All the workers, we’re just a small force.
This is what advanced manufacturing looks like. A small highly trained workforce keeps the automation humming. Jared Glover used to work at a lumber mill living paycheck to paycheck. Now he earns more than $100,000 a year, about three times his old salary.
Bill Whitaker: What has that meant to you and your family?
Jared Glover: Had two kids comin’ here, and now I got four, and we got a bigger house. Got a little more land. You know, we’re– they got a good school they go to, and everybody’s happy.
[Joe Max Higgins: How ya doin’?]
Joe Max Higgins is the very definition of down home. But don’t be fooled. It’s a good bet he’s got more hard-edge, business savvy then many Harvard MBAs.
[Joe Max Higgins: 170 turned into $.75 billion. Do the friggin’ math.]
He outwits the competition with a bag full of tricks. He can twist your arm or kill you with kindness. He can wear you down. He lobbies relentlessly and so far has rounded up a half billion dollars in generous tax breaks and cash incentives from state and local politicians.
Joe Max Higgins: Here, there’s four million in here. Let me tell you how this is structured.
Joe Max Higgins has vision and we don’t mean 20/20. He can see what others don’t. He took us up to show us.
Bill Whitaker: When I look out here I see beautiful green agricultural land. What do you see?
Joe Max Higgins: Well, when I– I– when I look at the land, I see it as product for us to develop.
He bet the farm that in this state with weak labor unions, he could attract industry like a magnet if he turned that land down there into massive industrial ready sites.
Bill Whitaker: If you build it, they will come?
Joe Max Higgins: Yeah. We’re installing the water. We’re installing the sewer. We’re installing the roads. And we’re getting everything ready so when that company comes to locate, they’re eliminating all risk. I mean, that lot’s there ready to stick a shovel in and build.
Higgins had to convince county supervisors to spend almost $12 million on that first site where Steel Dynamics now sits. He’s since built up three other so called megasites and envisions more. It wasn’t an easy sell at first. He told us people in the Golden Triangle were paralyzed by the decline and poverty. He saw an area rich in assets: an airport, railroads, waterways that ran north to the Great Lakes and south to the Gulf Coast, and a quality engineering program at Mississippi State.
Joe Max Higgins: I said, “These guys should be winning,” you know? “It’s—something’s not right.”
Bill Whitaker: They didn’t see those advantages?
Joe Max Higgins: Correct. They didn’t realize that they were big and strong and fast. Nobody’d ever told ‘em they were big and strong and fast. They just thought they were, you know, slow and stupid, I guess.
Allegra Brigham: He would say, “You just have a losing attitude. You expect to be a loser. You don’t expect to be a winner.”
Allegra Brigham, the former CEO of the local power company, and John Davis, a bank executive, served on the search committee that recruited Higgins. They thought his brash style would shake up the status quo.