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Manufacturing labor pool sustains Nissan, other companies

The announcement of Nissan North America’s plans to build a manufacturing plant in Canton had a number of industry observers wondering: Are there enough workers to go around?

The answer now, a year after the plant opening, is yes. Nissan was able to fully staff the plant without cutting into existing manufacturers’ labor force due to a combination of factors, notably the record number of plant closings in Mississippi over the past three years.

“There’s no doubt that could have had some impact on it,” said Jay Moon, director of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association.

Along with Nissan’s 5,100 promised jobs are positions at 41 plants named as tier one or tier two suppliers to the Nissan facility. But even with these plants coming online after Nissan Canton began production in May 2003, the number of Mississippians employed in manufacturing jobs has dropped 22% from November 2000 to November 2003, according to the Mississippi Employment Security Commission.

In November 2000, more than 229,000 Mississippians were employed in manufacturing, while 178,800 were employed in the same kinds of jobs in November 2003.

However, the plant’s economic impact has begun to be more apparent, with current figures showing a slight increase in the sector in the next quarter. According to the Mississippi State Profile issued by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation for spring 2003, the manufacturing sector added 500 jobs to Mississippi between the third and fourth quarters of 2003, resulting in the first manufacturing employment gain since 1998.

Even with the competition these new companies bring to the search for qualified employees, other Mississippi manufacturers have not seen the run on their staffs that had been predicted by some.

“In talking to our members that have lost somebody to Nissan, they’ve been able to recover,” said Moon.

Companies in Central Mississippi were cautious in commenting on the effect the plant may have had on their workforce decisions. However, several indicated that the difficulties they expected did not have as much an impact as they had feared.

“There was some concern,” said Randy Watkins, general manager for Anel Corporation in Winona, “but we’re far enough away we felt we were right on the line for whether people would drive that far to work there.”

The bulk of the Nissan’s workers do come from the metro Jackson area, which was a factor in Nissan’s decision to locate in Canton. However, Nissan has released studies showing that employees at its facility come to the plant from all over Mississippi, including coastal and extreme northwestern areas.

“People like to live in small towns, but they will drive long distances for good, high-quality jobs,” Moon said.

Robot Coupe, a Madison County manufacturer of commercial food processors, has seen very little impact from Nissan’s presence on their workforce, according to Cliff Redding, vice president of finance.

“We’ve had no more difficulty after it came than before,” he said. The facility employs 65 people with about 15 working directly in the manufacturing and warehouse area. “We thought about it, like everybody else did, but we haven’t lost anybody to Nissan.”

Redding reports other factors affect the company’s hiring, the most acute being absenteeism and high turnover. “Folks want a job and a paycheck, but they don’t want to work,” he said.

Education and training is not as much of an issue with Robot Coupe as it may be with other manufacturers, with the company being willing to work with employees to upgrade their skills. “We can generally train them, and they’ll be good employees.”

With the state’s longstanding reputation as a low-wage haven, Nissan may have had in impact on manufacturing salaries since it came online in May 2003 and ramped up to full production. According to the MESC, the average weekly manufacturing pay has risen 12% over the past three years.

“That’s more attributable to the overall skill levels that are needed now for manufacturing jobs,” said Moon, adding that Nissan was the leader in bringing advanced manufacturing techniques to Mississippi. “You can’t find anyplace that has more technology anywhere than Nissan.”

While noting that Mississippi still faces challenges in training its workforce to meet the new skill standards needed for 21st-century manufacturing work, Moon also sees the location of the suppliers to Mississippi as a forecast of new opportunities for Mississippi in the automotive realm.

“A number of them are new companies, and a number are major players in the automotive industry,” he said. “We’re talking about international companies, high profile companies coming in. I don’t think we’ve even begun to tap the automotive potential in Mississippi.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer at Julie Whitehead at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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