Small-town auto plants face challenge: Finding workers

This “magic circle” around the proposed facility must have at least a couple of significant population centers within it from which the automaker can draw the first employees, said Chris Berryman, a veteran automotive specialist with the economic development arm of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Berryman, who most recently helped lure Ford to western Tennessee for its Blue Oval City and previously landed investments from General Motors, Toyota and Volkswagen to the seven-state TVA region, said what was contained in the resulting 120-mile wide circle was a first requirement for any site, regardless of manufacturer.

“They all had a 60-mile radius that they wanted to look at during the site selection process, and it’s a direct correlation to that initial work force of 1,500 or so that they need to kick off their first phase of manufacturing,” Berryman said.

“Every OEM is going through a work force challenge right now trying to retain what they have and also trying to recruit [new workers] if they’ve announced an expansion,” Berryman said. But “what’s changed is the issue of COVID on OEMs. The worker of today has a little bit different mindset than the worker that was pre-COVID,” requiring automakers and suppliers to offer better wages, better benefits and more flexibility in shift work if they want to keep their factories humming.

Sadler said companies are having to be creative in order to get sufficient bodies into the application pipeline.

“You’re starting to see companies look at those barriers to employment, like child care, housing burdens, transportation burdens, shift timing and how can they work to be more flexible in eliminating some of those barriers, so that people have the option to go to work,” she said.
The tight labor market is also helping to erase some of the historical wage advantages that the Southeast used to lure so many auto factories there. “I don’t know if it’s fair to say [the wage gap] is gone. There’s still some differential there between a metro area and a rural area,” Berryman said. “But I think the gap could be closing in just a little bit.”