Anxiousness turned to euphoria Oct. 6, 2011, when Continental Tire announced a new $500 million tire plant with more than 1,600 employees was coming to Sumter.
Eights months of recruitment and several years of preparation – and a final couple weeks of nail-biting – paid off for Sumter. An international company was coming to town, giving Sumter more economic diversity.
Officials and residents in Chester County felt the same emotions last month when another international tire company, Giti, announced it would locate near Richburg. Based in Singapore, Giti has said it will invest $560 million and employ more than 1,700 people at Chester County’s “mega site” for economic development near Interstate 77.
The Sumter and Chester plants will surely have different features. But the size of the plants and the process for making tires are basically the same.
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In Sumter County, local government leaders wanted economic diversity because they knew the perils of being a military town. The military has been flying planes from the north side of Sumter since 1941. Today, the 20th Fighter Wing, flying the F16 Fighting Falcons, calls Shaw Air Force Base and Sumter home. Sumter leaders know all too well how business fluctuates with wing deployments, as well as the uncertainty that comes every time Congress talks about closing bases.
Sumter officials wanted someone that would be there for the long haul, providing jobs that would keep residents from traveling to Florence and Columbia for work. They also hoped for a plant that would attract other companies to supply it.
Continental fit all their needs. The plant currently has 500 workers, and is producing about 3,000 passenger and light truck tires a day – each stamped with “VY,” the plant’s international tire code.
As the work force expands – Continental’s production goal is eight million tires annually by 2021 – the German company wants to hire locally.
The October euphoria was soon replaced by reality. How could Sumter meet Continental’s needs for 1,600 technology-trained workers?
Central Carolina Technical College and its branch of readySC, the state’s workforce training program, and the Sumter County school district accepted the challenge.
“Where were we going to find all those workers?” asked Tim Hardee, president of Central Carolina Technical College.
“The excitement of winning was replaced with the reality of training, especially the first wave,” he said. The college had to “scramble a bit” to help Continental find 200 start-up workers, Hardee said. Now, the challenge is to maintain a constant flow of trained candidates.
Central Carolina’s lessons will likely help York Technical College as it begins working with Giti Tire.
York Tech president Greg Rutherford knows his school faces a big challenge, but he plans to face it deliberately, step-by-step.
Both schools were involved in the recruitment of their respective tire companies. Each knew it was dealing with one of, if not the, largest prospects to locate locally. Not only would the schools have to supply the technical skills, they would also have to make sure workers had the needed “soft skills” such as a good work ethic, a positive attitude, and communication and time management skills.
“It’s about setting corporate culture from the get-go,” said Ashton Elmore, training manager at Continental’s Sumter plant. The college “has become our exterior human relations department,” he said.
Central Carolina knew Continental’s expectations were high.
“Continental only wanted to hear, ‘Yes, you can do that,’ ” Hardee said.
Rutherford said Giti Tire officials made it clear that the company is in Chester with a “forever commitment,” and that the technical college would be an integral part of its plans.
Giti officials showed how serious they were during the recruitment process. During an aerial tour of Chester County, they asked the helicopter pilot to land next to York Tech’s Chester campus off S.C. 9. They wanted to see where their workers would be trained.
To meet company demands, Central Carolina has – and York Tech will – turn to established programs, which they expect to double in size as their tire companies grow.
One is the program for obtaining the S.C. Manufacturing Certificate. The 200-hour program helps students with “soft skills” while teaching them how to read blueprints, be safety conscious, and how to work effectively in a manufacturing process.
Continental normally looks for workers with one year of manufacturing experience, Elmore said. “We want to see you were a successful employee somewhere else.”
But the company makes exceptions for applicants with the manufacturing certificate, Elmore said. “With the certificate you have proven you want to work,” he said.
The push for the manufacturing certificate has helped not only Continental, but other plants in the Sumter region find workers, Hardee said.
The second program is “mechatronics,” which combines mechanical and electrical training, giving students the skills to operate and maintain the latest generation of “smart” manufacturing equipment.
Both programs are currently offered at York Tech and Central Carolina. Specific programs for Giti will also be developed at York Tech.
Rutherford noted, “the old term (for the programs) was industrial maintenance,” but Continental and Giti aren’t interested in what used to be.
“This is not your grandfather’s textile mill,” Elmore said. “It’s not crowded, you’re not working in grease.” The line is not overly hot or cold, the climate is controlled – not for the workers, but to maintain the proper humidity for making tires.
And the smell of rubber, “that’s the smell of money to us,” Elmore said.
The subtle smell permeates most of the 1.1 million square feet Continental currently has under its roof at the Sumter plant.
A long, wide corridor runs down the spine of the plant. Workers drive forklifts and other machines up and down the corridor. Those walking keep to one side. On the other side is a long line of equipment that turns raw rubber, steel, fabric and an assortment of chemicals into tires.
While there is some manual labor, most of the process is computer controlled.
When a batch of rubber starts down the production line, it gets tagged with a barcode. That information stays with the rubber the entire process. If a tire fails to pass inspection, the barcode tells workers which machines the tire passed through, helping to identify the problem.
When those machines have a problem, technicians with mechatronics skills will often be called upon to fix them.
Continental officials declined to release salary figures for those jobs. Giti Tire is just starting its construction phase.
But Hardee and Rutherford agree their mechatronics grads have the potential for good-paying jobs. Hardee said the Sumter salary could be as high as $25 an hour. Rutherford said he expects Giti’s to be competitive with such positions in the market.
The mechatronics push is not limited to the tech colleges. Sumter schools have a mechantronics program that starts in the 10th grade. For the first two years, students split their time between academic and technical classes. In the senior year all the instruction is at Central Carolina. The program includes an apprenticeship at Continental, said Frank Baker, superintendent of Sumter schools.
Continental has donated about $40,000 in equipment to the Sumter schools for it mechatronics program, Baker said.
The collaboration isn’t limited to technical education, Baker said. The high school curriculum is being tweaked to teach more job-ready skills, for Continental and other manufacturers, Baker said.
As Continental and Giti move forward, the technical colleges plan to grow with them.
In June, Central Carolina started renovating a former Wal-Mart store for its own Advanced Manufacturing Technology Training Center. The 104,000-square-foot center has space dedicated to train Continental workers. The center should be open by May. Hardee said the college would not have gotten funding from the state without Continental’s plant.
York Tech anticipates more use of its Chester center, fulfilling a long-term goal. The college opened the center is 2009 with the intent it would an integral part of whatever company occupied Chester County’s “mega site” off I-77.
“It was somewhat of a risk, but it was one of the missing pieces,” in the economic development recruiting process, Rutherford said of the center.
Giti has an office at the center as its begins work in Chester, he said. York Tech is ready to begin working with Giti, including sending some of its people to Giti’s Asian plants to learn their way of making tires.
While the basic process of making tires varies little from plant to plant, each company has its own proprietary operations. The intent, Rutherford said, is to design “custom training based on that discovery process” for Giti.
But, whether it’s Central Carolina or York Tech, Sumter or Chester, educators or tiremakers, all agree there’s one common purpose: to do things flawlessly – for a long time.