New plan to drive state's automotive strategy

2013-11-02T06:00:00Z 2013-11-04T15:17:07Z New plan to drive state's automotive strategyJoseph S. Pete joseph.pete@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com
November 02, 2013 6:00 am  • 

Indiana has been a big player in the automotive industry since the early days when raccoon coat-clad daredevils sped Hoosier-made Stutz Bearcats or Marmon Model 32s through the countryside, but a statewide council hopes to really kick the sector into high gear.

The Indiana Automotive Council has drafted a three-year strategic plan that's aimed at making the state's auto manufacturers and suppliers more globally competitive, in order to spark more jobs and investment. The industry-led plan calls for more better educating the workforce, encouraging more innovation, filling in gaps in the supply chain and branding the industry better.

The council has been working to arrange for more recruitment visits to college campuses and to establish training programs for industrial maintenance jobs that involve programming automated systems and can up pay up $70,000 a year, and even more with overtime.

Indiana's automotive industry is second-largest in the United States in terms of gross domestic product, though it is not a geographically concentrated as in other auto-intensive states. Auto manufacturers and parts suppliers are spread all across the state, from the Ohio River to Lake Michigan's southern shore. More than 600 companies employ more than 120,000 Indiana residents, and generate more than $9 billion in economic output per year.

Locally, Lear Corp. and Contract Services Group operate in Hammond. Many more Hoosiers also work at Ford's Chicago Assembly Plant, Chicago Stamping Plant and at nearby suppliers that are just across the state border. The local steel mills in East Chicago, Gary and Portage also count the automotive industry as their biggest customers.

The Indiana Automotive Council and Conexus Indiana talked to industry leaders to learn their needs before drafting the plan aimed at improving the state's position as a auto manufacturing hub, said director Matt Conrad.

Conrad said – as best he was able to determine in his research – Ohio, Kentucky and other automotive-intensive states have not come up with similar plans, at least not that they have made public.

Indiana officials wanted to be strategic about nurturing the auto industry to ensure its future viability, Conrad said. Goals include ensuring companies can find enough qualified employees, attracting more suppliers to fill voids in the existing supply chain, and bringing more of the research and development to the state.

"Indiana has the ideal economic environment for business growth and we've seen a dramatic resurgence of the automotive industry nationwide, with specific projects in Indiana leading the way," said Tom Easterday, Indiana Automotive Council chairman and executive vice president of Subaru's Lafayette division. "Now is the time to ensure we have the best plan in place to leverage this momentum for the future."

The Indiana Automotive Council is already working on initiatives that include identifying links that could be added to the supply chain, such as with electric coating, large tool and die, and metal stamping. Council members are talking to companies about their needs, with the aim of either convincing existing suppliers to branch out into those areas to meet demand or luring new suppliers into the state. The idea is to increase access to products and decrease shipping costs.

Another initiative has been to better train the workforce, such as by encouraging high schools to adopt programs or curricula that prepare students for manufacturing careers. The council also has been working to get colleges to offer more automotive training programs and to help auto workers further their education, such as by working out deals with Ivy Tech Community College and other institutions to defer the collection of tuition until after students complete advanced training.

An issue had been that colleges wanted tuition upfront, at enrollment, while employers offered reimbursement for such classes after their workers completed a degree or certificate. The council worked out a solution where colleges will put off collecting tuition until after the workers graduate, and then will get paid directly by the company.

That way, household finances will not be a barrier that keeps workers from improving their skills. A well-trained workforce will keep the industry competitive, Conrad said.

"Workforce is the issue the industry is placing the most attention on," he said.

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