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Foreign Makers, Settled in South, Pace Car Industr


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June 22, 2005

Foreign Makers, Settled in South, Pace Car Industry


HUNTSVILLE, Ala., June 17 - By most accounts, the United States auto industry is in deep trouble. But don't tell that to the newest workers here in Alabama, where foreign carmakers are redefining the auto industry in America.

Automakers from overseas first began building manufacturing plants in this country in the 1970's, largely as a defensive response to protectionist threats. But even as General Motors and Ford have been announcing thousands of job cuts, the foreign automakers are aggressively building new factories and expanding plants they opened not long ago.

In Alabama alone, Mercedes-Benz has doubled the size of its plant outside Tuscaloosa in the last year, while Honda has done the same at its factory in Lincoln. A new plant from the Korean automaker, Hyundai, opened just last month in Montgomery. And Toyota is adding 300 more workers here at its two-year-old plant in Huntsville to produce powerful engines for the big pickup trucks that will be made in a factory opening next year in Texas.

In other industries, American manufacturers have been some of the most avid investors abroad. But in the case of the auto industry, the competition has been brought right to Detroit's doorstep as the strongest foreign companies are moving to states eager for their investments, most of them in the Deep South, and hiring workers seeking the stability that home-grown companies can no longer offer.

As a result, a quarter of all cars and trucks built in the United States are now made in factories owned by foreign automakers producing foreign brands, up from 18 percent in 2000. The assembly plants alone employ nearly 60,000 people, and that number continues to grow.

The employment at the American companies still dwarfs that of the newcomers. Automakers in Detroit employ four times the hourly workers - 250,000 - but that number is continuing to fall. Already, G.M. has announced that it plans to cut 25,000 of those workers by 2008.

Union jobs at the Big Three plants pay a dollar or two more an hour - about $26 an hour compared with $24 or $25 an hour for the nonunion jobs at the foreign plants. But compensation at the American automakers swells to an average of $55 an hour when health care, cost of living and other benefits are counted, compared with $48 an hour, on average, at Toyota.

Toyota gets more out of its workers. Its plants operate at about 107 percent of the manufacturing capacity, meaning that they are constantly running on overtime, according to Harbour & Associates, a consulting firm that tracks manufacturing. By contrast, G.M.'s plants are operating at only 75 percent of their capacity, Harbour found.

For David Herring, who grew up in Pontiac, Mich., outside of Detroit, his new job at Toyota's engine plant in Huntsville is a return to the industry that employed his uncle and other family members, but that he had originally decided to avoid. He earned a football scholarship to the University of North Alabama and then became a social worker. The job wore him down, he said, and he saw opportunity and stability at Toyota.

"Basically, auto country is moving down south," said Mr. Herring, 29, who met Toyota's president on his first day on the job. He added, "Fate brought me here."

For the most part, the first wave of foreign-owned plants were farther north, in places like Ohio and Kentucky, while the newest factories are concentrated in the Deep South.

The state of Alabama has been particularly generous in wooing auto companies. In 1993, it provided $258 million in incentives and tax breaks to land its first foreign automaker, Mercedes. The state has spent hundreds of millions since to attract the Honda, Hyundai and Toyota plants.

But what may have clinched the deals was the state's laws - similar to those on the books throughout much of the South - that do not require workers to join unions even if their plants are organized.

"The auto industry has found a welcome down here," said Johnny L. Mathis, a business development manager with Qore Property Sciences, a company that has prepared the construction sites for many of the new auto factories and parts plants.

Since 2000, the Big Three automakers have lost eight points of market share just to their Japanese competition. Detroit now holds 57 percent of the American car market, while foreign automakers have 43 percent.

Among the companies adding jobs, no company is courted more than Toyota, the world's richest car company, which is gaining strength even as G.M. falters. Beyond expanding its engine plant here, where its ultimate investment will be $450 million, Toyota is building a $1 billion factory in San Antonio - set to open next year with 4,000 workers. And company officials are looking at even more places, including Arkansas, to build additional factories.

Toyota's impact on the nation's economy has been powerful. A study by the Center for Automotive Research, which has yet to be published, estimates that Toyota's investments in the United States had led to 386,600 American jobs as of last year - including jobs at suppliers and in surrounding communities.

That includes the 29,000 assembly workers at Toyota's plants, plus another 74,000 people employed by the automaker in its California headquarters, design and engineering centers and at its dealerships. And those figures do not include Toyota's expansion plans. In Texas alone, the study estimates, Toyota will help create another 9,000 jobs.

The impact helps explain why "states are falling all over themselves to land a car company," said James T. Bolte, a Toyota vice president in charge of the Alabama plant.

In a state where the average wage is $31,000 a year, according to the Commerce Department, Toyota's workers earn $45,000 on average, with overtime, plus a benefits package valued by the company at $10,000. Workers receive medical, dental and life insurance coverage; a traditional pension plan and a 401(k) plan; an allowance for child care; and an annual cash bonus, which was $3,850 a worker last year.

Prospective employees are lining up to apply for jobs at the new factories. About 30,000 people vied for the 2,000 additional jobs at the gleaming white Mercedes plant west of Birmingham, where its workers dress in royal blue shirts that bear the company's three-pointed star logo on the right shoulder and their names on the left.

For Tammy Young, 36, the sprawling Mercedes factory was a prize after being laid off at U.S. Steel's big Birmingham operation, where she worked for nine years. In between, she held a temporary job at the Honda plant and worked at a dairy store.

The factory has just begun building the new R-class, a luxury station wagon, which will sell for about $50,000. It joins a new version of the M-class sport utility, the original vehicle produced here, whose sales are up 66 percent since it was updated last spring.

Toyota, which opened its plant with 150 workers in 2003, had 9,000 applications for those positions, even though jobs in an engine plant lack the allure and glamour of building cars at places like Mercedes.

The process of getting a job at Toyota is rigorous, meant to weed out those not meant for the repetitive, sometimes hot work inside the plant, which sits on 200 acres surrounded by cotton fields.

After interviews, job seekers had to complete five weeks of pre-employment training at a center, which is run and paid for by the state, across the road from Alabama A&M University. The drill included exercises to see if they could work on teams and hours spent on a practice assembly line. None of the applicants were paid. Anyone who was late or missed a training session was instantly cut.

The few successful applicants went through nine weeks more training inside the engine plant, including two hours a day in a fully equipped gym where they ran on treadmills and lifted weights to build endurance.

Unlike plants run by Detroit automakers, where a worker can spend 30 years screwing on the same parts, everyone on the Toyota line is taught to do every type of assembly job, so they can switch positions when needed to keep production flowing.

"It was hard," Mr. Herring said, "but it all had a purpose."

To many, the purpose is the stability of a job at Toyota, which earned $4.8 billion in 2004, as the Detroit companies struggled. Jewal Fossett II, 31, was encouraged to apply by his father, who had bounced from one Ford job to another.

The younger Mr. Fossett, who previously worked for MCI, said he had one reason for applying: "I have my own family to raise."

Noralyn Lassiter, 22, said she gave up her job as a customer service representative at DirecTV, where she spent days at a desk "on a headset." Now, she will stand for hours a day at a workstation, redolent with the faintly acrid smell of engine coolant. But, she said, "It's hard to find a job that you can stick with a long time."

Lately, at least some Toyota officials in Japan have expressed concern that the automaker's rapid growth could cause political problems, with one senior executive proposing that the company might raise prices or temper its expansion to give G.M. and Ford a break.

But, Mr. Bolte, the Toyota executive, is doubtful that the company is planning to retreat. "I haven't heard anybody say, 'Slow down,' " he said.

If you really want to make people safe drivers again then simply remove all the safety features from cars. No more seat belts, ABS brakes, traction control, air bags or stability control. No more anything. You'll see how quickly people will slow down and once again learn to drive like "normal" humans.

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