Round Rock attracting new high-end manufacturers

Region's workforce, higher education and infrastructure help lure jobs in assembly and production

Inside a long industrial building off Sam Bass Road one can hear the whir, clank and bang of metal on metal as high-end tools craft products to be shipped throughout the state. This cacophony is the heartbeat of a manufacturer such as Hagbros Precision LLC., one of dozens of manufacturers in Round Rock building products ranging from consumer goods to semiconductors.

Often called high-end manufacturing, these jobs require certification or education in specialized areas of machining or manufacturing.

In Round Rock there are 2,384 people employed in the production and manufacturing sector, according to data provided by the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce. With a workforce of 58,282 people, manufacturing makes up 4.09 percent of Round Rock's employment.

Hagbros Precision has been recognized as one of the fastest growing businesses in the region. It provides custom manufacturing of various tools and materials and for clients in a variety of industries including automotive, semiconductor, and oil and gas. Hagbros Chief Financial Officer Josh Behjat attributed the company's success to a dedicated administrative staff as well as Round Rock's central Texas location, which allows the company to serve a variety of customers in the region.

"The majority of our customers are local," Behjat said. "We didn't realize this before, but there's lots of industry within Round Rock, Austin and Georgetown."

He said the labor pool in Round Rock was a primary attraction for his business. He also said the standard of living and property values led to a majority of his workforce residing in the area north of Austin.

"Our business is our people, simple as that," he said. "Without our people, our machines aren't producing anything."

Bringing in the business

Ben White, vice president of economic development at the Round Rock chamber, said there has been an uptick in specialized manufacturing prospects coming to the city and they anticipate more.

White said companies are bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.

"People have realized that offshoring sounded good, but the quality of the goods weren't as good as they thought," he said.

White said Round Rock's low property taxes, deregulated electricity market and access to transportation corridors such as SH 45 N and I-35 are draws for manufacturers to locate within Round Rock.

White said the chamber actively recruits manufacturers because doing so helps diversify the tax base.

Tony Bennett, president of the Texas Association of Manufacturers, said cities also look to attract manufacturing jobs because they tend to create service sector jobs around them.

"They are the best jobs you can lure to your community," Bennett said. "Most [economic development corporation] and chamber people understand that very well."

Educating the workforce

Kyle Schulz, director of economic development at the chamber, said Austin Community College and Texas State Technical College, both of which have campuses in Williamson County, are some of the "best partners" Round Rock works with when attracting manufacturing businesses.

"You need to have an educated workforce that knows how to work that machinery," Schulz said. "It's all very automated and technical now. It's no longer just that I'm going to take a saw and cut a piece of metal."

Edgar Padilla, director of career services at TSTC, said TSTC built the Hutto-based East Williamson County Higher Education Center, in partnership with other colleges in the area, to fill the technical skills gap in the area.

"Our mandate is on the technical workforce," Padilla said. "We focus on credentials that immediately translate to jobs in the workforce."

Douglas Smith, chairman of the Architectural and Engineering Computer Aided Design Department at ACC, said students learn to work with machines that pull designs from a 3-D model in a computer.

Smith said this type of digital manufacturing is happening in smaller, more controlled facilities, and ACC's curriculum reflects that.

"The mill operator is no longer a guy who's changing out tools and doing everything manually," he said. "The operator is more likely to be touching buttons on a control pad outside the machine for the job."

Lowering the barrier to entry

One way Round Rock manufacturers are getting started is by foregoing the traditional workspace altogether. At TechShop Austin-Round Rock, located in Round Rock, entrepreneurs and hobbyists can pay a membership fee and have access to the high-end tools other operations paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to acquire.

Round Rock resident Tim Martin manufactures hobby tables at TechShop. The tables are designed to organize the paints and materials hobbyists use when painting miniatures. His company, TGJ Hobbies LLC is selling the tables online.

Martin said the niche would not appeal to larger manufacturers because of the low profits and high barrier to entry with the tools. But by working out of TechShop he and his partner were able to use the laser cutter and software the shop had on-site. Martin and his partner started their company for approximately $5,000, whereas a traditional manufacturer would have spent closer to $100,000, he said.

"Our product was able to go from design to finished and sellable in two months," he said. "Because everything's there. The software's there, the tools are there. [We were] able to not worry about how we're going to pay for the next part of what we'll need because it's all sitting there."

Round Rock resident Clay Douglas operates his business, Clay's Kits, out of TechShop. Clay's Kits manufactures educational kits used in teaching teenagers how to use circuit boards. Douglas retired from his job at Intel in April and hopes to make Clay's Kits a full-time job.

"Without the low-cost access to the tools, I probably wouldn't have made the decision to make a business out of Clay's Kits," he said. "But I can go in and start making stuff and selling them. I can test to see if I can make a business out of it."