• 1. Japan, $15.7 billion and 41,262 employees
• 2. Germany, $3.4 billion and 14,933 employees
• 3. Canada, $1.8 billion and 9,795 employees
• 4. United Kingdom, $1.4 billion and 12,987 employees
• 5. Korea, $913 million and 1,270 employees
Source: Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development
Japanese companies kept a close eye on the United Auto Workers election at Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant last week, Japanese Consul-General Motohiko Kato said at an event at UTC Tuesday.
The island nation is the largest foreign investor in Tennessee, with more than 41,000 people employed at 172 Japanese companies across the state.
"Right-to-work is one of the important issues for Japanese companies," Kato said, adding that some Japanese see unions as unnecessary because maintaining positive management-employee relations is already a top priority.
"Under the Japanese business culture, the Japanese CEO tries to maintain good communications with the workers, tries to have regular meetings and give a full explanation of what is going on," he said.
Japanese companies have collectively invested $15.7 billion in Tennessee, according to the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. They're lured by the state's central geographic location, transportation assessiblity and ample incentives. Japanese carmaker Nissan employs about 7,000 people in Tennessee alone, and many of the carmaker's suppliers followed Nissan to the Volunteer State.
Kato expects Japan's presence to continue to grow, although he does see some challenges the state will need to overcome in order to continue to attract Japanese investment. The most pressing need is worker training and development, he said. Some Japanese companies in Tennessee are having a hard time hiring skilled workers.
"It's getting harder and harder to find engineers," he said. "If you visit Japanese facilities, you will see the big robots working. And you need engineers to fix those."
The growing dearth of skilled workers has recently gained statewide attention. The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry launched a campaign called, "Dream it, Do it," in December aimed at changing the poor perception of manufacturing jobs and equipping plant managers with new tools to recruit young workers.
Gov. Bill Haslam, R-Tenn., also has supported a proposal to give graduating high school seniors free tuition to attend two years of community college or a college of applied technology during his State of the State address in early February -- a move Kato applauded.
The consul-general was the keynote speaker at UTC's annual "Introduction to Asia Conference," Tuesday. The event aims to help students and faculty understand the importance of Asia in today's global economy, said instructor of geography Alice Tym.
"We're entering the Pacific Century," she said. "There is a greater percentage of trade across the Pacific than the Atlantic, and yet many, many students know relatively little about Asia. Kids don't realize this is what's happening -- that's who you're working for. That's where the jobs are, the opportunities are. Knowledge is preparation."
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or firstname.lastname@example.org.