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The Southern Road: Under The Factory Roof



I can't stop thinking about Corey Burkett. And Tonya Williams. And the Burton family.

These folks - and thousands more - are southerners who have joined automobile companies to plot new careers and, hopefully, achieve some of their personal and financial goals. And the jobs along the Southern Road aren't just going to people who were born in the South.

During my trip, I met people with roots in Detroit who made a reverse migration from the North, landing positions at the foreign automakers. Others traveled across oceans, from Korea, Japan and Germany.

These are the people you'll see when you take a tour of a car plant. I got to talk to a couple dozen while I was on the Southern Road, and I was struck by the similarities and differences among the people I met.

All of them, it seems, feel the auto industry is their future, and the future of their communities and their states. Numerous times people said they felt "blessed" to have landed jobs for which hundreds of thousands of applications came in.

The pay for these positions generally starts around $15 an hour, but some earn more, and promotions seem to be readily available. These plants aren't union, and there doesn't seem to be any overwhelming drive to organize them.

You never know, as a reporter, whether people have been briefed on your arrival. But I saw more folks smile and wave at me than in any factory I'd ever visited up north. The employees in places like Mercedes, Hyundai and BMW are also used to being interviewed. Some have even starred in commercials and on the local news.

So, who's working under the roof?

Burkett, who I met at Hyundai's Montgomery, Alabama, plant, has some awesome responsibilities. He's the manager of the paint line, where Hyundai paints each car that's built in the plant. He supervises more than 140 people, including an assistant manager, three group leaders and more than 100 assembly line workers.

Before he came to Hyundai, Burkett worked at Rheem's nearby factory, making water heaters. He was already used to industrial work, so the idea of making cars "wasn't a big shock or adjustment," he says. His dad, who works at a bakery, and his mom, who is a supervisor at the county jail, were excited that he was getting a chance to join the big new company in town.

Burkett started on the bottom rung in May, 2004, installing fixtures in the paint shop and working on its conveyors. "You learn a lot," he says of the first job. Promotions rapidly followed. Now, Burkett's day begins at 6 a.m., when he receives communications from the previous shift (Hyundai is a three shift operation).

As the other workers arrive, he makes a point to be out on the paint shop floor, talking with his employees and making sure there is enough staff on hand to cover every position. When he's training newcomers, he'll assign them to work with an experienced team member, so no one is left on their own.

Williams, who works in the paint shop at BMW, knows what it's like to make a transition from another industry. For years, Williams worked at a vitamin factory in North Carolina, a short drive from where the BMW plant sits outside Greenville, S.C.

Day in and day out, Williams worked on assembly line where the tablets were measured into rows after rows of square bottles. "It was nothing like this," she says of the gleaming BMW factory.

At BMW, she confidently takes me on a tour of the paint shop (usually off limits to visitors) where employees are applying the glistening paint that is a hallmark of the German luxury brand. The BMW workers know that their workplace is a subject of curiosity.

"You have a lot of people who come in from out of town, you have a lot of Germans that visit," she says.

And another German company, Volkswagen, has provided opportunities for three members of the Burton family in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Brothers Mark, 24, and Brian, 28, are taking part in an apprenticeship program that the auto company is sponsoring in order to groom, and eventually hire, its future technicians.

Their father, Mike, is an inspector at VW - "one of half a million people who showed up at the convention center" in Chattanooga to apply for jobs at the plant, he jokes.



Brian had been working at a local bank for nine years, while Mark was a corporate trainer at the Melting Pot restaurant chain. Their father had a background in graphic design. "The opportunities did run out at the bank," says Brian Burton.

But when he learned of the apprenticeship program, he originally picked up a flyer not for himself, but for his brother, who has always been fascinated by the way things are put together.

Now, all three of them arrive each day at the sprawling VW facility, where over three years, the younger Burtons are being taught all aspects of work at the assembly plant over nine semesters. For four, they'll be in workshops, for five, on the plant floor. And all they have to do is go outside to see the impact VW has had on Chattanooga.

"Everywhere you go, you see VWs on the road," Brian Burton says. "It's a VW town now."

At Toyota's engine plant in Huntsville, Alabama, Evona Mayes spends her workday in an area that's called the "test bench." She listens to the engines for abnormal sounds, prepares them for shipping, and conducts final inspections.

Like all of the other autoworkers, Mayes also made a transition, from the retail industry. She worked at a nearby Wal-Mart, and actually missed out on the first round of hiring at the plant, which sits a short drive from NASA's facilities in northern Alabama.

When a cousin called to say Toyota was adding jobs, Mayes applied and was called in to take an assessment test. Although it was supposed to take three hours, she finished it in 90 minutes, and wondered if her speed meant she didn't have the right qualifications.

She was wrong. A call came, and then a job offer. Now, Mayes has applied to become a team leader, the first step toward climbing up the ladder, as Burkett has done at Hyundai. To her, the Toyota jobs means "not having to worry," she says. And while there are some ups and downs on the assembly line, Mayes says she doesn't have second thoughts about exchanging a life in a superstore for her new life.

"I think it was my destiny to be here," Mayes says.

Filed under: North America, United States

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