American Manufacturing Lives

American Manufacturing Lives by Howard Ludwig. Image credit: ToyotaTour of Toyota’s plant proves manufacturing survived the recession.

PRINCETON, Ind. – Manufacturing survived the Great Recession.

It’s easy to think this once-proud sector of the American economy died during the recent economic downturn. But it’s alive and well in southern Indiana. I had an opportunity to see this glimmer of hope last week as I toured Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana, Inc.

The four million-square-foot plant produces the Sequoia and Highlander SUVs as well as the Sienna minivan. The plant sits on 1,160 acres in Princeton, Ind., and employs 4,100 people – mostly men.

The recession has been hard on men, particularly those in hard hats and safety glasses. Manufacturing and construction have been hardest hit by the downturn. It’s easy to see why. Walk into any store and look at the tags on the merchandise. There are not a lot of products marked ‘Made in the USA’ anymore.

It’s ironic that a car company headquartered in Japan would be bucking that trend. But there I was on a tram tour of the sprawling plant that spits out a new Sienna minivan every 97 seconds and upwards of 430 new SUVs everyday.

That’s not to say that ALL Toyotas are made in the states. In fact, most of the automaker’s luxury vehicles (Lexus) are manufactured in Japan. Still, Toyota manufactures its Avalon, Camry, Highlander, Sienna, Sequoia, Tacoma, Tundra and Venza in the USA. The company also plans to open a fifth assembly plant in Mississippi soon. It will manufacture the Prius hybrid there.

Image credit: ToyotaBut while Toyota seems to be ramping up its American manufacturing, the overall outlook for this sector isn’t good. Most experts predict a continued outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to countries that offer cheap labor and lax environmental requirements.

“The U.S. economy has transitioned from brawn to brain over the past three decades,” according to Newsweek. The magazine’s cover story from Sept. 27 was titled “Men’s Lib.”

This Newsweek article and others like it have looked at this shift in the American economy and used it to encourage workers (particularly men) to purse careers in growing fields that have traditionally employed women, such as teaching and nursing.

Of course, not everyone can be a teacher or nurse. And at the Toyota plant, workers earn $18 per hour to start and upwards of $28 per hour after two years on the job. The plant also employs mostly men. Females make up 18 percent of the workforce.

Howard Ludwig in his best supermodel pose, outside the plant in Indiana

All of Toyota’s plants in North America are non-union shops. According to the public relations guru on the tour, employees have had the opportunity to vote in favor of unionization on several occasions but have consistently voted against the effort.

Walking through the plant, I admit I had a change of heart. I’ve always driven American-made vehicles. Part of this is because I like to tinker on my cars. But this backyard mechanic doesn’t have many tools, let alone a set of metric wrenches.

A more subtle reason that I’ve never purchased a foreign car is because I didn’t want to feel like I was contributing to the problem. Meaning, I felt that driving an American car made the statement that American jobs were important to me.

All those folks driving foreign cars clearly didn’t care about the American autoworker. But having been in the Toyota plant, I know now that’s not true.

In fact, I never even bothered to investigate where my Chrysler Grand Voyager was manufactured. Turns out, my minivan was made in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

Figures, my American minivan is actually made in Canada while the Japanese minivan is made in Indiana.

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