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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, April 15, 2006

In Indiana, Toyota factory is viewed as a miracle in a cornfield

By Stephen Franklin
Chicago Tribune

PRINCETON, Ind. Janet Greenwell and her husband, Richard, scraped by for years.

Now they live in a 4,000-square-foot brick house, their income has grown 40 percent, and Janet can stay home to care for their two kids.

Their improved lifestyle descended upon them like a pale white spaceship, which is exactly what Toyota's massive factory looks like and where Richard now works. "You feel as if you just hit the lottery and you are blessed," Janet said.

The existence of the auto plant, plopped in the middle of a windswept cornfield, separates this southwest corner of Indiana from a state that is battered by factory closings. The plant also separates this area from much of the Midwest, which is in the midst of another painful retrenchment of the industry, perhaps the greatest downsizing in Detroit's history.

In stark contrast, the Toyota factory provides thousands of jobs with paychecks of $60,000 and more a year, company-paid health, dental and vision insurance, a pension plan and a 401(k), and on and on.

For some, whose only options before were low-paying jobs, working in the mines or moving elsewhere, it is as if the Japanese company had planted an ATM in a field and invited them to use it at the company's expense.

The money is so good, some workers spend beyond their means. Toyota has responded by offering financial counseling.

"Many folks were coming from $8-, $9-, $10-an-hour jobs and that's a blessing and curse if you get yourself into trouble easy," said Tony Dillon, the factory's head of human resources.

Several years ago Toyota officials noticed that the increase in the number of hardship loans and garnished paychecks was "growing faster than we were hiring workers," said Dillon.

As General Motors, Ford and parts suppliers to those companies shutter factories, the new American auto industry is sprouting up in far different places than Detroit. This new industry includes the foreign competitors who aren't saddled with the huge costs associated with the domestic car companies.

Toyota picked a 1,100-acre cornfield in rural Gibson County, population 32,000. It was far from union strongholds, had good rail links and was about 180 miles from Toyota's plant in Georgetown, Ky.

From the 1,500 workers that Toyota planned to hire more than 10 years ago when it signed the deal to build the plant, its workforce has swollen beyond 5,200. And that doesn't include the hundreds hired by Toyota's auto-parts suppliers in the region.

Initially, Toyota predicted spending $700 million on the factory. But by 2004, its investment had reached $2.5 billion, according to a study by economists at the University of Evansville and the University of Southern Indiana. By their tallies, the factory's payroll was $310 million with another $106 million in benefits for 2004, and the facility had generated nearly 13,000 area jobs.

But Toyota's impact goes beyond its payroll. The largest employer for miles, the company gave away nearly $1.9 million to area charities and public organizations last year. That's an all-time high locally for the company, which, as officials explain, prefers to go slow when throwing around its money and clout.

When the factory opened, production workers earned $13 an hour. Today, the pay is $25 an hour for unskilled workers after two years on the job, and $28 for skilled workers. With sales doing well for the trucks and minivans produced there, workers lately have been putting in at least an hour's overtime daily.

Earl Griswold considers Toyota's arrival a blessing.

Four years ago, he was called in early one morning to a Princeton factory where he had worked for 23 1/2 years and given the news: He was being let go.

"I had worked most of my life for one company and boom! I was devastated," recalled Griswold, who was a factory boss. He thought he would end up like thousands of Midwest workers who have been cast adrift.

At first, he didn't consider applying at Toyota. Then he found his courage to apply.

They tested him and hired him to be a quality controller. It's a job that uses his technological savvy and factory experience.

"I ended up with a perfect job," said Griswold, whose two sons, niece and her husband also work at the factory.