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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.

The wage differential between German and U.S. workers is just one advantage BMW finds here. The primary reason for the factory, executives emphasized, is that the United States is the automaker's largest foreign market. Locating here, among other things, helps mute the effects of currency fluctuations between the two countries.

"We needed a bigger production capacity [here] to balance production and sales in the U.S.," BMW Group Chairman Norbert Reithofer said at the opening. "And for me that is the most important point."

New hires at the plant are not directly employed by BMW but come through a contractor, although the automaker says some of the new workers might eventually be hired by BMW and work their way up to the higher wage.

BMW declined to say what their factory workers in Germany make, explaining in part that comparisons are difficult to make because of benefits packages and differing job categories. The International Labor Organization has pegged hourly manufacturing wages in Germany at nearly 24 euros, or more than $33.

Moreover, in a comparison of international labor costs, the German Association of the Automotive Industry reports that the cost of an auto company employee including benefits is 46 euros hourly in Germany and 26 euros per hour in the United States.

While the opening of factories in foreign markets has sometimes drawn criticism from American unions, last week's opening of the BMW factory here appears to have been met with little opposition from the German union.

"From a German trade union perspective, we are not overly concerned," said Horst Mund, head of the international department at IG Metall, a large German union to which BMW workers belong. "The success of German carmakers depends on the ability to sell cars abroad. We cannot expect all the cars to be made in Germany."

He said that when Daimler decided to make the Mercedes C Class in Tuscaloosa, Ala., rather than in Germany, the union extracted promises that no workers would be left without a job.

"The affected plant got other models to work on and other jobs - so no one was losing," Mund said. "You can do that as long as you are growing."

Competitive wages

None of the 15 U.S. workers interviewed for this story complained, either. In South Carolina, which has a lower median household income than all but eight states, many consider $15 an hour a good wage.

In conversations outside the plant's turnstiles and beside the parking lot, the blue-shirted workers uniformly praised BMW and their jobs. They also recounted the sometimes difficult path to getting hired.

"It's been pretty good - it's not really hard work," said Wade Lamay, 40, who used to be a supervisor at a plastics recycling company.

Ibn Saweuyer-Parks, 60, who holds a bachelor's degree in math, had been overseeing construction jobs in four Western states and anticipating a comfortable retirement until the economic downturn ravaged his savings.

"I had to get back to work," he said. But "I work in a wonderful environment."

A 58-year-old co-worker, Cliff, who preferred to use only his first name, said he'd run distribution centers for Target and Michaels before taking a buyout a few years ago. Also a college graduate, he thought it would be easy to find another job, but it wasn't. He ended up looking for work at McDonald's and driving a bus for a while before finding the job at BMW.

"It's tough out there," Cliff said.

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