Missouri Automotive Industry Makes a Comeback

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WENTZVILLE - Inside General Motors' Wentzville assembly plant outside of St. Louis, more than 1,000 workers drive from miles away, driving to the daily grind.

"Some of the folks working here drive in excess of 100 miles one way," Wentzville Assembly Plant Manager John Dansby said. 

As drills squeal, alarms roar, and horns beep, the wheels of nearly 500 trucks move steadily along a winding conveyer belt each day. 

"I'm just thankful to have a job at this point," assembly worker Rick Campbell of Mexico, Mo. said. 

For Campbell, GM isn't just an assembly line, it's his life line, a source of stability for 26 years. 

"I don't know what I'd do other than this." 

Campbell isn't alone.

But thousands of auto manufacturing workers were left without jobs, not knowing what else to do after the economy plummeted and General Motors and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy. Stability, was kicked to the curb. 

Campbell is divorced, and his family moved out of state. But he says GM's Wentzville assembly plant, 75 miles away from Mexico, is a second home. 

"It's a lot like a family here with a lot of people." 

The family bond shook the very foundation that brought workers together, when the bankruptcy triggered rounds of layoffs two years ago. 

"We were right in the midst of a recession, our sales volumes went down, and we lost a shift of production," Dansby said. 

Wentzville Assembly not only lost a shift, but half its workforce - 1,200 people. 

Chrysler's weeks rolled to a stop the same year at its Fenton plant, leaving thousands jobless. But now, many Missouri auto manufacturing plants are on the road to recovery. 

"Presently, we don't have anyone laid off. Everyone's back at work, volume is continuing to increase, and we hope that's gonna continue," Dansby said. 

Emerald Automotive is also in the process of hiring workers for its plant set to open in Hazelwood. The company's CEO, Andy Tempest, said within four hours of posting job listings online, more than 250 people applied. By the next morning, that number grew to 400. 

In the Kansas City area, following more than two years of negotiations and the Missouri Manufacturing Jobs Act signed Summer 2010, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announced Ford's plans to bring more than 1,600 additional automotive jobs over the next four years. Ford is investing 1.1 billion dollars in the Claycomo plant. 

One of the reasons auto manufacturers are hiring again is because car sales are up - supply and demand. According to industry watcher Wards Auto, Ford, Chrysler, and GM all reported higher sales in September 2011 - from the same time the year before. Chrysler reported a 27 percent increase in sales. 

The Center for Automotive Research estimated that to every one new auto manufacturing job, nine other jobs are created, from auto parts suppliers and makers, to nearby restaurants. 

"In addition to those 4,000 jobs at Ford, those are directly related to 11,215 other jobs across the state, both direct and indirect, retail and non-retail," Missouri Department of Economics Director David Kerr said. 

Locally, Dana Corporation in Columbia is an example of such jobs. The company manufactures parts for Ford. 

But if you ask GM/UAW Communications Coordinator Tom Brune about the economy, perhaps numbers and statistics aren't completely necessary. Instead, look no further, than a white van. 

"There are a few analysts that use the white van as a leading economic indicator," Brune explained. 

Think of each van as a business in itself, and you'll see what they mean. 

"Delivery vans, construction industry, you know, contractors, plumbers, electricians, to a moving van... It would seem that, given the state of affairs here, the economy is poised to pick up because our orders are picking up," Brune said. 

Building 469 vehicles a day...

"It's an 11-hour work schedule," Campbell said. 

Often six days a week...

"We've been doing that for over a year now. We're working harder than we ever have in the past," Campbell said.

Workers will get the relief they were hoping for - a second shift. The plant plans to bring back 400 more laid off GM workers at the beginning of the year.

GM also recently announced that plant's $380 million plan for its second line - a new version of the mid-size Colorado.

Campbell is driving home a message - though it's not the motor city, Missouri is the Show-Me state. And he's showing the auto industry may have been down, but it's not out.