Tennessee’s Auto Industry: Pitfalls and Potholes
The automotive industry in Tennessee is one of the big drivers of the state’s economy. Nissan established its first U.S. manufacturing facility in Smyrna in the early 1980s, and auto-related investments have grown in the state ever since. General Motors opened a plant in Spring Hill in 1990, and Volkswagen opened its Chattanooga plant in 2011. These three facilities collectively employ more than 12,000 workers, a total that doesn’t include the vast amount of automotive suppliers that call Tennessee home. Currently, Tennessee is the largest employer of auto-industry workers in the South.
Coming out of the Great Recession, Tennessee is now well positioned to continue its standing as a competitive destination for the automotive industry. In October 2013, the Brookings Institute produced a report titled “Drive! Moving Tennessee’s Automotive Sector Up the Value Chain.” The report pointed out the Volunteer State’s various advantages in the auto industry, which included its geographic location, strong transportation infrastructure, and favorable cost structure.
The report also shared some interesting employment numbers. For example, Tennessee’s share of auto-manufacturing employment in North America increased to an all-time high of 3.3 percent by the end of 2012. Also, more than 12 percent of all jobs created in Tennessee since the recession are related to the auto industry. Needless to say, carmaking is important to the state’s economic health.
The Brookings report also pointed out some competitive challenges and pitfalls the state will need to navigate in the coming years:
- Cost pressures: Input costs continue to rise, as does the consumer’s demand for greater value. Production increases in low-wage countries will continue to add pressure, even though the labor-cost gap between U.S. locations and low-cost countries is closing.
- Demographics and workforce: Technology advances have made the automotive-manufacturing workplace much more sophisticated. The challenges to find an adequately trained workforce will be a constant challenge.
- Technology: The entire automobile production system and product line will require constant technological upgrades to keep pace with changing regulatory requirements. For innovations to be effective, they will need to reach far into the automaking supply chain.
The Brookings report also suggested that the state lacks a strategic approach to maintaining a business-friendly environment for advanced industries. For example, Tennessee ranks in the bottom fifth of states in terms of tax competitiveness for new research-and-development firms and labor-intensive manufacturing.
The report also indicated that holes exist in Tennessee’s workforce-development programs. The state falls short in literacy, numeracy, and educational attainment, gaps that complicate the state’s ability to ensure the availability of an educated workforce for the auto industry. Also pointed out in the report was the state’s lack of research and development activity in the auto sector. The state also lacks a fertile technology network that caters to auto-sector suppliers, particularly the smaller ones.
Despite all these factors, the future for Tennessee’s auto industry looks bright. The state has momentum and the necessary resources to adapt to future challenges. Tennessee has the continent’s broadest automaking supply chain, a huge advantage in today’s auto-manufacturing environment. Past success does not guarantee future performance, but hopefully Tennessee can avoid the potholes on the road ahead.
By Troy Balthrop, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Atlanta Fed’s Nashville Branch
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