SPARTANBURG, S.C. — When BMW began accepting applications in 1993 for the initial 1,595 production jobs needed to staff its first American auto plant, there were more than 20 applicants for each of the new positions.
But the German automaker didn’t have to sort through the initial 35,000 applications or worry if those hired would have the right job skills. The state of South Carolina provided the recruitment, screening, testing and training for BMW through its Employment Security Commission and its network of technical and community colleges. The state even located a satellite branch of one of its schools next to the BMW plant.
South Carolina began offering technical education for new and expanding businesses nearly a half century ago and was one of the first states to tailor its training programs for specific companies as an industrial recruitment tool.
“Our community colleges have long been a part of our state’s economic development strategy and were a key asset we could offer to BMW,” said R. Carter Smith, the executive vice president of the Economic Futures Group in Spartanburg who worked to help recruit the automaker in 1992.
Such state-funded recruitment and training programs now are commonplace among Southern states that have landed major automobile assembly plants.
In West Point, Ga., where Kia Motor Co. is building a $1.2 billion auto plant, state and local governments are building an on-site training facility and funding $72.1 million of training programs. Georgia will help the Korean car company assess and hire from more than 43,000 applications received this year for Kia production jobs, and ultimately state and local governments will pay to train the plant’s expected 2,893 workers.
Tennessee has pledged an even bigger amount for the $1 billion Volkswagen plant projected to hire 2,000 employees in Chattanooga by late 2010. The state has committed nearly $81 million to build and staff a training center at the Enterprise South industrial park to serve not only Volkswagen but also related suppliers and businesses drawn to the site.
Jim Catanzaro, president of Chattanooga State Technical Community College, said the new training center and programs will be designed to meet the employment needs identified by VW.
“We’re very early in the process of determining the type of training we will need to provide for Volkswagen, but we have committed to prepare the workers for the jobs they need,” he said. “We’re capable and ready to do what is needed.”
Although Volkswagen is expected to be the biggest employer to receive such job-specific training from Chattanooga State, Dr. Catanzaro said the college provided tailored training last year for nearly 200 companies in and around Chattanooga. In the past, Chattanooga State helped train more than 700 telemarketing employees at the former AT&T call center, now owned by Convergys Corp., and more than 1,000 workers and contractors at the DuPont nylon plant, now owned by Invista.
SCREENING AND TRAINING
At BMW, company spokesman Bobby Hitt said the company initially hired its production workers from among applicants who lived within 50 miles of the plant, and it used the nearby Spartanburg Community College for much of its pre-employment screening and testing.
“We got a very good work force,” he said.
BMW pays up to $26 an hour for its most experienced production workers — a wage level that has helped boost the inflation-adjusted average wage for all manufacturing workers in the region by $112 a week since BMW came to town, according to the South Carolina Employment Security Commission.
When the plant started operation, there was a concern among some that Americans couldn’t build as good a car as their German counterparts, Mr. Hitt said.
“There was a lot of pressure when no one else had done it,” he said. “There were high expectations.”
Spartanburg Community College, which began in 1963 as Spartanburg Technical College, established a satellite branch near the plant to help BMW meet its training needs. Interested applicants initially applied by mail and were screened by the state.
“The demand for the BMW jobs had built up for the better part of a year between the announcement and when the company started taking applications, so the excitement level was very strong,” said C. Ben Davis, area director for the Spartanburg Workforce Center of the South Carolina Employment Security Commission.
Susan E. Pretulak, senior director of the Center for Accelerated Technology Training at Spartanburg Community College, said BMW and its suppliers created a record demand for the school’s targeted training programs.
“From the governor on down, we were very focused on meeting BMW’s training needs,” she said.
The typical worker hired by BMW had at least a high school diploma or a degree from a technical school and had worked a couple of years at another manufacturing plant.
Applicants were screened for education and experience, and an initial assessment looked at eye-hand coordination, motor skills and clerical skills. The school also tested workers’ ability to work in teams as part of its pre-employment training and assessment.
Along with the usual training in “hard” skills such as working and repairing industrial machinery, the college also included such “soft” skills as management and human resources, Dr. Pretulak said.
“We saw a real shift in the emphasis on team and soft skills,” she said. “Prior to BMW, most of our training was only in hard skills. But the ability to work in cross-functional teams began here with BMW, and now that is part of the culture of most manufacturers.”
BMW added its own training center near the plant in the late 1990s to advance its worker skills. But South Carolina continues to provide initial training and apprenticeship programs for many BMW suppliers.
Jeff Hunt, head of the industrial engineering technology training program at Spartanburg Community College, said the school continues to adapt its programs to meet industry needs. This fall, the school was one of five South Carolina colleges that added a megatronics apprenticeship program to combine traditional industrial maintenance with new electronic and computer networking skills needed to maintain the robots in today’s automated factories.
“BMW wanted to make sure that, if they hired someone from one school or another, that they would still have the same basic competency,” Mr. Hunt said. “So far it is working out well.”
Tim Coggins, a tool-and-die instructor at Spartanburg Community College for the past two years, works with area employees interested in upgrading their skills to get their journeyman cards for tool-and-die machinists. The two-year training program typically allows workers to boost their hourly wages from $5 to $7 an hour.
Dwayne Wilson, 36, is one of those students and credits BMW for generating most of the better-paying factory jobs in the Greenville-Spartanburg region.
“If it weren’t for BMW, there probably wouldn’t be many decent-paying jobs in this area,” said Mr. Wilson, who works for INA Bearing, a local automotive supplier.
Video: BMW’s impact on educationSpartanburg Community College has seen both a change in the manufacturing industry and the educational needs in the area. Watch as students and educators discuss the changes.
Mike Pare, the deputy Business editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, has worked at the paper for 27 years. In addition to editing, Mike also writes Business stories and covers Volkswagen, economic development and manufacturing in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. In the past he also has covered higher education. Mike, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida Atlantic University. he worked at the Rome News-Tribune before ...