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State task force on automotive jobs sees a bumpy road ahead

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 12, 2009 - Ford in Hazelwood and Chrysler in Fenton may be sad parts of Missouri's automotive past, but a new task force is working to figure out how to make a happier future.

Named by Gov. Jay Nixon in March as the cloud over the domestic auto industry began to darken, the Automotive Jobs Task Force is looking at ways to keep the plants that Missouri still has and to market the state to attract and develop whatever production may become available.

A strong past may help, task force members say, but a fertile climate for future growth is essential. And keeping an eye on other states in the same hunt isn't a bad idea either.

"We can't just sit back and expect the competition won't be doing anything," said Chris Chung, CEO of the Missouri Partnership and chair of the task force. "A lot will depend on state policy that will make it attractive.

"It's about creating a workforce that has the right skill set through education policies, about creating consumer demand, knowing where you want to focus your efforts as far as marketing and making sure you have a good balance between responsible public resources but still recognizing that this is a competitive industry."

Adds task force member Stan Wallach, who as city attorney of Fenton has seen the dispiriting result when automotive jobs disappear:

"In Missouri, we have a history of being second only to Detroit as automakers. We need to market that. We are great, great car builders, but we are being idled by all the domestic automakers and have not been successful in bringing foreign automakers to Missouri.

"People are making things. They're just not making them in Missouri."

Four-pronged strategy

Chung said that after one full task force meeting and several teleconferences, the group has come up with a strategy that concentrates on four areas.

* Workforce development: "We've got a very skilled workforce in the automotive industry," Chung said. "The key is not to lose that skill set and to make sure that future workers being educated in Missouri right now have the skills that are necessary to succeed in this industry."

* Economic development and policy:  In a situation that is increasingly competitive for attracting and retaining businesses, "we have to make sure Missouri has the competitive toolbox in its battle against the 49 other states," he said.

* Market development: Regardless of what direction the auto industry steers in the future -- plug-in hybrids, flex-fuel vehicles, some form that is not even on the drawing boards yet -- "we have to make sure we create a market for that in Missouri. Whether it's by procurement by government or by special incentives for consumers, if we can create even more market demand in the state, hopefully it will make us more attractive as a location for those industries.

"Toyota built pickups in Texas. One reason they did it was pickups were so popular there, it cut down on transportation costs."

* Future growth opportunities: Chung said Missouri has to become fully aware of emerging technologies, whether it is advanced storage batteries or new types of transmissions, so it can take advantage of opportunities to bring such production to the state.

Tight time frame

To meet a short deadline that was handed the task force -- 90 days from the end of March -- Chung is calling on the group's wide range of expertise.

Included are educators, labor leaders, business people and others, most with direct experience in the auto industry. That range of perspectives should help the group come up with a plan that is both diverse and realistic, said Wallach, the Fenton city attorney.

"The governor did a great job of bringing people from all different walks of life and experience on to the task force," he said. "It's a daunting challenge. I had hoped the market would have resolved the situation favorably in the case of Chrysler and Fenton, but it turns out that it shifted the other way and changed very unfavorably.

"It's just heartbreaking to see a plant go dark."

As much as Fenton officials and others would like to change the course of that recent history, Wallach says that the only thing to do now is to look forward, not back.

He realizes that government cannot control decisions made in business boardrooms. But it can help create the right climate, and provide the necessary support, to make Missouri as attractive an alternative as possible.

"How do you compete with Kentucky? How do you compete with Ohio? How do you compete with states that are getting industrial investment when we're not, and what do you do with plants that are idle?

"From a local government perspective, all you can do is get the word out and give every incentive out that you can give."

And despite the pressure of headlines that seem to bring a daily dose of disheartening news, Wallach says that progress is likely to be slow.

"There's an old saying that the ox is slow, but the earth is patient," he said. "Nothing is going to happen fast.

"We're not going to have a knee-jerk solution. Knee-jerk solutions rarely work anyway. We need to be looking long term, way downfield, to see how to create the type of environment for a producer of automobiles to want to locate here. If the next Henry Ford is going to make hybrid vehicles or alternative-energy vehicles, we want him to do it here."

By the numbers

Workers in Missouri in December 2008 in Big Three auto assembly plants: 6,200

Workers in Missouri in December 2007 in Big Three auto assembly plants: 11,700

Workers in St. Louis area in December 2008 in Big Three auto assembly plants: 2,000

Workers in St. Louis area in December 2007 in Big Three auto assembly plants: 7,400

Recent peak automotive industry employment in Missouri: 39,017, September 2003

Automotive industry employment in December 2008: 28,006

Average industry wages: $57,440

Economic impact: For each job lost at an assembly plant, an estimated four additional jobs are lost in the overall economy

Source: Missouri Department of Economic Development

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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