Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant is one of the most active leaders in promoting the alliance of the Southern automotive community. Now in his second term, Bryant was the keynote speaker at the 2014 Southern Automotive Conference in Mobile, Alabama. At that time, he called for a strong regional association of automotive producing states as one of the measures needed to be more competitive with the emerging automotive industry in Mexico. Writer Chris McFadyen recently interviewed Bryant to get his take on the state of the industry. Excerpts from that interview follow.
Q: How would you rate the Southeast’s performance in the automotive world?
A: The South is leading the nation in automotive manufacturing, and there are a number of reasons. One is that we have a good labor force. I tell people as they come to Mississippi looking for opportunities to move companies and plants here, this is the workforce that built America. They show up on time, give you a good day’s work and on Sunday they’re in church and on Friday nights they’re under the lights with their kids. These are the types of people they are looking for.
Also there is the absence of unions. You look at Detroit and California and you see that union employment has been detrimental. It drives the cost of manufacturing above what we need to compete with foreign manufacturing.
And the cost of doing business is lower than in many other states. We have a low cost of living and availability of raw materials such as steel and an abundance of energy production.
Q: What about efforts in Mississippi?
A: We’re always looking at our tax code to make sure we have the lowest corporate burden that we can on auto manufacturers. We work with local partners in counties and cities and make sure they have a low tax burden. Counties offset some of the property taxes to incentivize the companies that are here. We make sure they understand our natural resistance to union organizing and activity. And we have passed specific laws that say that union activity cannot interrupt entrances to and from auto companies. We’ve said those organizing can’t be a threat to the other employees at the plant.
Q: What are some recruiting highlights?
A: The tire industry has been a target of our recruitment, as have most auto suppliers. We offer the middle skills that fit very well with the manufacturing of heavy equipment and automobile tires. We were very fortunate last fall to have Yokohama open in West Point, and in January of this year we announced the location of Continental in Hinds County, in central Mississippi, which has been identified as the top economic development project in the Southeast. It fits very well with the auto industry and the middle skills of our residents.
Q: Middle skills?
A: The middle skills are roughly those of a community college workforce training program, not necessarily leading to a university degree. We have just passed in our Legislature the Mississippi Works Fund, which has been our theme since the first inaugural. (It’s) a $50 million fund for workforce training at community colleges, to develop those middle skill workers, but also welders, auto technicians — those skills critical in a state like Mississippi — and this $50 million fund will go directly to training. The funds did not come from the general fund but from a reserve fund at the Mississippi Department of Employment Security. There has been a 25 percent reduction in the need for that money, now that unemployment is down to about 6 percent. We were able to build a reserve for workforce training and we have reduced the unemployment tax for corporations in the state to about half. Add 47, 000 jobs and you relieve the burden on the unemployment fund and the burden of corporations having to pay that tax.
Q:What is the importance of manufacturing jobs?
A: The standard of living increases dramatically for those workers — for more than 6, 000 employees now at Nissan in Canton and the 1, 200 workers at Toyota who are manufacturing half a million cars a year. It is a very good, generational job. As father and mother retire, they like to see their children get that job. It has added quite a high standard of living for those employees. They can buy automobiles and trucks and buy homes and send their children to college — things that were out of reach in the past, with jobs that did not provide the standard of living that they now enjoy.
Q: Some people call manufacturing a sweatshop job.
A: Here in Mississippi we have many families that are one generation from the farm. My father started out as a mechanic and in later years was a shop foreman, one of the hardest jobs that anybody could have. These are people who are accustomed to working. The type of work you find now in a modern automotive manufacturing facility, with robotics and advanced technology, it’s not the old idea of the Henry Ford era, an environment of steam and hot molten metal. Manufacturers today are deeply concerned about safety standards and you could not find a better work environment than you now see at plants like Yokohama and suppliers such as that, with the advanced automation you see in these systems.
Q: What is the South’s best strategy for the future auto industry?
A: Collaboration among auto-producing states is an important part of the Southern automotive corridor. We have suppliers in Mississippi who are also looking to be suppliers to OEMs in other states. They may have a facility here where they manufacture a portion for automobiles assembled in Georgia or Alabama. But they are close enough to a number of plants that they will put a manufacturing facility here to take advantage of plants in Tennessee or Kentucky, all of which could buy their product. There is definitely that synergy of multiple auto manufacturing facilities. We are basically the center of 10 key states. And we have the transportation infrastructure to support it — with the Mississippi River, railroads, highways and ports, which also helps us with shipments to Mexico and through to South America — which is an emerging market for the auto industry, one that, as a government, we work very closely with.
Q: Is Mexico a threat?
A: We do see Mexico as a potential competitor. Mexico is much more of a threat than Minnesota. We can compete and easily compete and win with any other part of the U.S. or Canada. We’ve got to be able to compete with those challenges. We think our workforce is superior, and technology has advanced to close the gap in most of our manufacturing.
Q: Where do you stand on trade?
A: We’re hearing discussions now about fair trade as it pertains to that, so there is more interest in that — in slowing that escape of opportunities to other countries.
I’ll leave (judgments about trade agreements) to the policy makers in Washington. I know that from the discussions we are hearing and reading about that members of Congress and presidential candidates believe there could be a fairer trade policy. Many understand the benefits of free trade between nations. But there is also some responsibility that goes with that. You hear very robust discussion about that and trading partners.
In the last several years, we’ve seen a growing industry in Mexico, and NAFTA was obviously a part of it. I’m not over-reacting to it, but if we do not pay attention to the competition, we could be losing opportunities to Mexico.
Interview by Chris McFadyen