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In its biggest foreign market, BMW gets skilled workers for less

While U.S. manufacturing employment has been in a decades-long slide, the BMW campus in Greer, S.C., has grown in the 16 years since its opening.

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 1:22 AM

GREER, S.C. - When German automaker BMW put out the call recently to hire a thousand factory workers here, the people who responded reflected the upheaval occurring in the U.S. economy.

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Among the applicants: a former manager of a major distribution center for Target; a consultant who oversaw construction projects in four Western states; a supervisor at a plastics recycling firm. Some held college degrees and resumes in other fields where they made more money.

But they're all in the factory now making $15 an hour - about half of what the typical German autoworker makes.

The trade debate in the United States usually focuses on the jobs lost to factories in the developing world. But the recession has forced countless skilled workers in this country to consider jobs they would have rejected in the past. They now offer foreign manufacturers a resource that was far less common just a few years ago: cheaper wages for better talent.

"We are a low-wage country compared to Germany," said Kristin Dziczek, director of the Labor and Industry Group at the Center for Automotive Research. "And that helps put jobs here."

But the price of having a more globally competitive workforce means more in the United States could fall well short of the middle-class living standards that manufacturing workers once could expect. Wages adjusted for inflation have declined for these workers since 2003.

At General Motors and Chrysler, new hires make $14 an hour, or half the amount that existing workers take home. Likewise, at the BMW plant, which is not unionized, new workers earn a little more than half of what those hired earlier make. Some still seemed stunned by their change of circumstances. But they are almost uniformly grateful for the opportunity.

"It's the best place I've ever worked in my whole life, I can honestly say that," said Debra Harrison, 50, who was laid off at an Electrolux factory 21/2 years ago and began at BMW in July.

'A win-win'

Although U.S. manufacturing employment has been in a decades-long slide, the BMW campus in Greer has grown in the 16 years since opening and is viewed by some as a model of what manufacturers - American or not - might achieve.

It employs 7,000 and has generated thousands of additional jobs in the region at auto parts shops and suppliers. Moreover, more than 70 percent of the vehicles produced at the factories here are exported, and an Obama administration commerce official who visited the campus last week, Rick C. Wade, called the plant an "example" of what is possible to move toward the president's goal of doubling exports in five years.

"We live in a global economy, and this is an example of what can be a win-win," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who last week attended the opening of the new 1.2-million-square-foot facility. Because of BMW's success in this Greenville suburb, "Southern politicians are tripping over themselves to attract foreign manufacturers."

Indeed, among the other large private employers in the area are Michelin, the French tire maker and Robert Bosch, another German manufacturer.


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