Obama tours auto parts factory
For Valerie Blackburn, President Barack Obama’s Wednesday visit to an auto parts plant couldn’t have come at a better time for her family.
After years of struggling financially, her husband, Doug Blackburn, 48, was hired by Linamar Corp. in November.
“This job has been a blessing,’ said Valerie, 48, of Dana.
Her husband nodded. “This was like a saving grace,” he said softly.
One day after his State of the Union address, the president toured the Linamar factory before speaking to workers like Blackburn who lined the factory floor.
The Linamar plant has become a symbol of local economic resurgence. The Canadian-based supplier of engine, transmission and driveline components for cars and trucks moved into a shuttered Asheville-area factory two years ago, pledging to hire hundreds of workers.
Strengthening the economy and creating jobs were a key concern for Obama in his first State of the Union address since his re-election. Although the U.S. economy is much healthier than it was four years ago, growth remains agonizingly slow and unemployment high.
Obama told Linamar workers that there are still too many Americans looking for work. But he called Linamar a success story.
He said local and state officials reached out to attract the company.
“While they could have gone anyplace in the world, they saw this incredible potential in Asheville. They chose to invest in Asheville, in North Carolina, in the United States of America,” Obama said.
“Today Linamar has hired 160 workers, 200 by the end of the year and it’s just going to keep on going after that. They came to Asheville to grow their business. The good news is what’s happening here is happening all over the country,” he said.
The Linamar plant provided the perfect backdrop for the president, said Ben Teague, executive director of the Economic Development Coalition for Asheville-Buncombe County.
He said that manufacturing in the area has “tremendous momentum behind it.”
“We’ve actually seen growth in the last few years, which is great,” he said.
Arden is about 15 miles south of Asheville, a picturesque city in the western North Carolina mountains.
The western part of the state was once home to thriving textile and furniture companies. But over the past 20 years, many of those plants have been shuttered as companies moved production overseas because of cheaper costs.
The area is beginning to see a turnaround, Teague said. In the last three years, manufacturers have invested nearly $520 million and created nearly 1,900 good-paying jobs in the Asheville area.
Linamar is clearly a catalyst. It moved into a factory that had been home to a Volvo plant, which closed in 2010, idling 220 workers.
When Linamar announced plans to open in Arden, it said it would invest $75 million and hire 260 people. But then the company said it would eventually expand the operation to 650 jobs and boost the total capital investment to $200 million.
Linamar workers make about $40,000 a year.
The job has been a godsend, Blackburn said. A former brick mason, Blackburn owned his own business, but had to walk away when the economy began faltering in 2007.
He was hired as a temporary worker at Meritor, a company that makes truck parts, including drivetrains. Meritor sent Blackburn for machine training at a local community college. Then Blackburn heard about Linamar.
He said the training helped him land the job.
His wife, who works for the U.S. Postal Service, said the family has faced hard times in the last few years. Two of their daughters died and they have struggled to make ends meet.
But they remain optimistic, especially about the economy.
“We’ve been blessed by God,” said Valerie, 47. “With everything we’ve gone through we never thought we would be here so close to the president.”
Local officials say one of the keys to the area’s manufacturing success is the partnership between manufacturers and colleges. That’s something that helped MacArthur Logan, 48, of Asheville.
He worked in a textile mill for 18 years before the company shuttered the plant in 2007 and moved production to Honduras.
At the time, Logan was making $21 an hour plus benefits. Losing the job was hard, he said. The divorced father of two decided he had to go back to school for training.
While he was receiving unemployment, Logan attended Asheville Buncombe Technical College and received a two-year degree in machine technology. He landed a job with a defense contractor before he heard that Linamar was opening a factory.
“I’ve been fortunate,” he said. He knows other people in the community haven’t been as lucky.
He grew up in Forest City, N.C. at a time when people could go straight from high school to a factory job. It’s not like that anymore, he said.
“I tell my kids that they need more than a high school education. Even with a degree that might not be enough. You might have to go back and get another degree to get a good job,” he said.