Route to Recovery

A trip through the epicenters of the recession

America’s Route to Recovery: Part Two – A New Revolution

Dec 29, 2009 22:28 UTC

For the Reuters multimedia project Route to Recovery, a team of journalists toured America to examine the impact of the recession and posted their reports on reuters.com. For the last installment in the series, reporter Nick Carey has written an extended overview of the challenges and opportunities facing the country.  The second part of this three-part report is below. Click here for part one.

Leslie Taito is executive director of Rhode Island Manufacturing Extension Services (RIMES), a nonprofit that provides consultation for small and medium-sized manufacturers in Rhode Island, a state of 1 million people.

Rhode Island was the home of America’s first mechanized cotton mill, but since Taito arrived 16 years ago, the number of manufacturers here has fallen to 1,945 from 2,800. Still, she believes that all of those that are left can be helped to survive and thrive — and the best way is to get smart and not try to compete with low-cost Chinese producers.

“Manufacturers have to specialize and find a niche where they develop high-end goods that are not sold just based on cost,” Taito said. “Sure, China can make it cheaper than we can,” she said, while weaving in and out of traffic en route through the heart of Providence. “But what they don’t have is the design or engineering capabilities that we do.”

ROUTETORECOVERY/

Maria Montero carries plastic products for quality control inspection at Blow Molded Plastics in Pawtucket, Rhode Island November 17, 2009.   REUTERS/Brian Snyder

One of the companies that RIMES has worked with in the past is Pawtucket-based Blow Molded Specialties, which makes products from hot plastic that is blown into molds where it sets. Its clients are predominantly in the healthcare sector.

President and majority owner Tom Boyd describes how the company’s largest customer switched production of a basic product to Mexico because it could be made there for 2 cents apiece instead of 8 cents in the United States.

That company had accounted for some 35 percent of business. “That was nearly the end of us,” Boyd said with a wry smile.

So instead of trying to compete on low-cost products, Boyd’s company specializes in high-end, complicated and intricate products, and even develops products for customers.

In the company’s meeting room, he shows off some of the firm’s products including one which looks almost like a plastic accordion and is about the same size, with evident pride.

This, he explains, is a plastic bellows his firm developed for a healthcare company, whose name he says he cannot divulge. It has a special function. Conventional practice in organ transplants has been to ship organs on ice. But Boyd says it has been found that a better way to ship organs is to keep them functioning, and the bellows he holds in his hands is part of a device to keep a set of lungs pumping while in transit.

Asked how much Blow Molded charges for a pump like this, Boyd shrugs his slight shoulders. “Maybe a few dollars each. And we only sold a few of them.”

But then he leans forward with right eyebrow and right forefinger raised. “Ah, but you see, the money’s not in the product,” he said, his grin widening. “The money’s in the engineering. We bill our customers for the development work we do.”

Communities around the country say they want to attract small firms like Blow Molded rather than focus on major corporations, for the simple reason that when a giant plant shuts down, it is almost impossible to replace the jobs lost.

The classic example is Wilmington, Ohio, where empty store fronts on Main Street are grim testimony to what happened when DHL axed nearly 10,000 jobs.

“When a big company like that goes, it leaves a very large hole to fill,” said Mayor David Raizk (pronounced “risk.”)

“I’d rather see 200 small companies with 50 employees each than one big one,” he said. “You can lose one, two or even 10 of those and find a way to replace them. Big companies are great when they’re in town, but when they leave they devastate communities.”

ROUTE-RECOVERY/

A pelican flies near a fisherman in Pensacola, Florida November 11, 2009. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

One such small firm is Computer Technology Solutions Inc, the largest privately-held software firm in Alabama, which has added some 40 jobs this year and now employs 150 people. “If that’s what we can do in a recession, imagine how we can do when the economy improves,” said president Sanjay Singh.

CTS got its start in a business incubator run by the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Singh said that unlike big corporations — which tend to be bureaucratic, slow-moving and inclined to withhold responsibility from young employees — CTS gives its 20-something employees multimillion-dollar projects to run on their own.

“If you give young people responsibility, they deliver,” he said. “We don’t hang over our employees’ shoulders waiting for them to get things done, we just let them do it.”

GREEN ECONOMY A LONG HAUL
There are great expectations that alternative energy or the “green economy” will help move America forward.

According to Lisa Frantzis, managing director for energy at Navigant Consulting Inc, in 2009, 7,000 megawatts of wind power was installed in America with the creation of 70,000 jobs — 50,000 direct and indirect jobs, plus 20,000 service-related jobs. Solar power saw 300 megawatts installed with the creation of 60,000 jobs.

Jay Paidipati, a Navigant managing consultant who works with Frantzis, said because of the industry’s breadth and relative youth, it is hard to make forecasts. “I would feel comfortable saying that the number of green jobs will be in the millions,” he said. “Just how many millions, I don’t know.”

ROUTE-RECOVERY/

Mesquite Lake Cattle Manure Power Plant is seen in El Centro, California, November 3, 2009.  REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

It will be years, however, before that potential is realized. One of the main problems is the mass of rules and regulations that make building plants a lengthy process.

Imperial County in southern California has hit on a novel way to get around red tape, using a provision of state law that allows local authorities to streamline the approval process for building a plant, as long as it is under 50 megawatts.

This loophole enables officials to handle the approval process in as little as a year, compared to several years at the state level.

“Getting anything done in California is hard,” said Imperial Valley Economic Development Corporation CEO Tim Kelley, at his office in El Centro some 100 miles (160 km) east of San Diego. “But it is less hard to get it done here.”

This area has 360 days of sun a year and has suitable geological conditions for geothermal power — there are 10 such plants already. Thirty others for solar, geothermal and wind facilities, are in the process of acquiring permits.

Red tape is not the only challenge.

Paul Rich is chief development officer at Deepwater Wind LLC, which aims to develop America’s first offshore wind farm, in Rhode Island. The farm, which would eventually provide 15 percent of Rhode Island’s electricity, should come in two phases. The first test phase with six to eight turbines could be installed off the coast by 2012. By around 2015 the wind farm would contain around 100 wind turbines.

Rich described the coast between Maine and Maryland as the “Saudi Arabia of wind,” predicting an “enormous, exponential leap in jobs, manufacturing and infrastructure.”

Part of the reason for the long lead time is the need for extensive tests of local wind conditions, he said.
“It won’t happen overnight,” Rich said. “We are trying to create a truly new industry here and it has to be done right.”

“A far bigger concern for us is finding a qualified workforce to run and maintain the wind farm when it becomes operational.”

In blighted states like Michigan, many former manufacturing workers are already training for green jobs, even though relatively few have been created.

Matthew Derra, 41, lost his job at struggling auto supplier American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc in July 2008. Now he is taking an associate degree in renewable energy and wants to find a job maintaining wind turbines.

“There’s nothing out there in my old field of work,” he said. “And there will be thousands of people out there chasing every green job, but I have to try.”

“I can’t just sit home and watch television.”

ROUTETORECOVERY/

April Metts watches television at her apartment in Providence, Rhode Island November 18, 2009.  Metts was homeless for several years before getting into her subsidized apartment as part of the Housing First RI initiative.   REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Even in California, which has America’s most aggressive climate change regulations, just 159,000 of the state’s 18 million jobs are considered “green” as of the start of 2008, according to public policy group Next 10.

Still, there are encouraging signs that money is flowing into renewable energy even in a sluggish economy.

Bill Gibson, is a business broker and principal of Gibson & Associates Inc in Pensacola, Florida. Gibson finds buyers for companies that want to sell.

He noted that companies selling luxury items are having trouble finding buyers because gun-shy banks won’t lend for that kind of investment, but he has noticed a lot more interest in renewable or alternative energy firms.

“There are definitely going to be haves and have-nots,” Gibson said. “Green energy is part of the future.”

The green energy industry is also seen as an opportunity for manufacturing firms to retool.

“What concerns me is when I hear people talking about manufacturing in the past tense,” said Virg Bernero, mayor of Lansing. “If we want wind turbines, someone here should manufacture them.”

ROUTE-RECOVERY/

The Vulcan statue is seen at Vulcan Park in  Birmingham, Alabama November 14, 2009. The Vulcan statue is a symbol of old times at the iron industry in Birmingham.  REUTERS/Carlos Barria

GEEKS AT THE TABLE
Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, keeps a board covered in bad news — headlines from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Economist about how badly the economy of the state has been faring. Rhode Island’s unemployment rate was 12.7 percent in November, the second highest in the country after Michigan.

“Our problems have made not just national but international headlines,” White said. “That motivates me to find a new way forward.”

Rhode Island is pinning its hopes on a strategy dubbed “Strengthening Providence’s Knowledge Economy.” It has involved bringing together local and state government, the Chamber of Commerce, the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (RIEDC) and hundreds of small hi-tech software companies.

“The geeks have finally been offered a seat at the table,” said business consultant Jack Templin.

White said there was an easy explanation: “The geeks are just about the only ones creating jobs right now.”
Companies like Working Planet, which handles algorithmic online market research for its clients, are now at the table.

“Up until a few years ago the chamber was focused on major companies and its existing membership base,” said Working Planet Marketing Group Inc president and co-founder Soren Ryherd. “Over the past three years the chamber has done an about face and is now also about the smaller companies that are creating jobs.”

“We have also become more organized because we need to reach the local universities so we can find and retain top talent,” he added.

Mike Saul is the interim executive director of the RIEDC and has spent much of his career as a “turnaround guy” taking poorly performing companies and making them thrive. He wants to do the same here, in part because three of his four children, like many of the state’s offspring, live outside Rhode Island because there was no work here for them.

“In any turnaround that is going to work you have to ask where is the enterprise value that I can push forward,” he said. According to Saul, the state’s education system and its wind potential create much of its enterprise value.

“Rhode Island’s attempts at economic development have been episodic in the past, but this time everyone is on the same page,” Saul said. “A crisis makes things happen. It helps individuals reinvent themselves and will help this country reinvent itself.”

Part Three – The Mind Factory

ROUTETORECOVERY/

A U.S. flag decal is stuck to the window in a door to the Harrington Hall homeless shelter in Cranston, Rhode Island November 18, 2009.    REUTERS/Brian Snyder

A NEW REVOLUTION
Leslie Taito is executive director of Rhode Island Manufacturing Extension Services (RIMES), a nonprofit that provides consultation for small and medium-sized manufacturers in Rhode Island, a state of 1 million people.
Rhode Island was the home of America’s first mechanized cotton mill, but since Taito arrived 16 years ago, the number of manufacturers here has fallen to 1,945 from 2,800. Still, she believes that all of those that are left can be helped to survive and thrive — and the best way is to get smart and not try to compete with low-cost Chinese producers.
“Manufacturers have to specialize and find a niche where they develop high-end goods that are not sold just based on cost,” Taito said. “Sure, China can make it cheaper than we can,” she said, while weaving in and out of traffic en route through the heart of Providence. “But what they don’t have is the design or engineering capabilities that we do.”
One of the companies that RIMES has worked with in the past is Pawtucket-based Blow Molded Specialties, which makes products from hot plastic that is blown into molds where it sets. Its clients are predominantly in the healthcare sector.
President and majority owner Tom Boyd describes how the company’s largest customer switched production of a basic product to Mexico because it could be made there for 2 cents apiece instead of 8 cents in the United States.
That company had accounted for some 35 percent of business. “That was nearly the end of us,” Boyd said with a wry smile.
So instead of trying to compete on low-cost products, Boyd’s company specializes in high-end, complicated and intricate products, and even develops products for customers.
In the company’s meeting room, he shows off some of the firm’s products including one which looks almost like a plastic accordion and is about the same size, with evident pride.
This, he explains is a plastic bellows his firm developed for a healthcare company, whose name he says he cannot divulge. It has a special function. Conventional practice in organ transplants has been to ship organs on ice. But Boyd says it has been found that a better way to ship organs is to keep them functioning, and the bellows he holds in his hands is part of a device to keep a set of lungs pumping while in transit.
Asked how much Blow Molded charges for a pump like this, Boyd shrugs his slight shoulders. “Maybe a few dollars each. And we only sold a few of them.”
But then he leans forward with right eyebrow and right forefinger raised. “Ah, but you see, the money’s not in the product,” he said, his grin widening. “The money’s in the engineering. We bill our customers for the development work we do.”
Communities around the country say they want to attract small firms like Blow Molded rather than focus on major corporations, for the simple reason that when a giant plant shuts down, it is almost impossible to replace the jobs lost.
The classic example is Wilmington, Ohio, where empty store fronts on Main Street are grim testimony to what happened when DHL axed nearly 10,000 jobs.
“When a big company like that goes, it leaves a very large hole to fill,” said Mayor David Raizk (pronounced “risk.”)
“I’d rather see 200 small companies with 50 employees each than one big one,” he said. “You can lose one, two or even 10 of those and find a way to replace them. Big companies are great when they’re in town, but when they leave they devastate communities.”
One such small firm is Computer Technology Solutions Inc, the largest privately-held software firm in Alabama, which has added some 40 jobs this year and now employs 150 people. “If that’s what we can do in a recession, imagine how we can do when the economy improves,” said president Sanjay Singh.
CTS got its start in a business incubator run by the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Singh said that unlike big corporations — which tend to be bureaucratic, slow-moving and inclined to withhold responsibility from young employees — CTS gives its 20-something employees multimillion-dollar projects to run on their own.
“If you give young people responsibility, they deliver,” he said. “We don’t hang over our employees’ shoulders waiting for them to get things done, we just let them do it.”

GREEN ECONOMY A LONG HAUL
There are great expectations that alternative energy or the “green economy” will help move America forward.
According to Lisa Frantzis, managing director for energy at Navigant Consulting Inc, in 2009, 7,000 megawatts of wind power was installed in America with the creation of 70,000 jobs — 50,000 direct and indirect jobs, plus 20,000 service-related jobs. Solar power saw 300 megawatts installed with the creation of 60,000 jobs.
Jay Paidipati, a Navigant managing consultant who works with Frantzis, said because of the industry’s breadth and relative youth, it is hard to make forecasts. “I would feel comfortable saying that the number of green jobs will be in the millions,” he said. “Just how many millions, I don’t know.”
It will be years, however, before that potential is realized. One of the main problems is the mass of rules and regulations that make building plants a lengthy process.
Imperial County in southern California has hit on a novel way to get around red tape, using a provision of state law that allows local authorities to streamline the approval process for building a plant, as long as it is under 50 megawatts.
This loophole enables officials to handle the approval process in as little as a year, compared to several years at the state level.
“Getting anything done in California is hard,” said Imperial Valley Economic Development Corporation CEO Tim Kelley, at his office in El Centro some 100 miles (160 km) east of San Diego. “But it is less hard to get it done here.”
This area has 360 days of sun a year and has suitable geological conditions for geothermal power — there are 10 such plants already. Thirty others for solar, geothermal and wind facilities, are in the process of acquiring permits.
Red tape is not the only challenge.
Paul Rich is Chief Development Officer at Deepwater Wind LLC, which aims to develop America’s first offshore wind farm, in Rhode Island. The farm, which would eventually provide 15 percent of Rhode Island’s electricity, should come in two phases. The first test phase with six to eight turbines could be installed off the coast by 2012. By around 2015 the wind farm would contain around 100 wind turbines.
Rich described the coast between Maine and Maryland as the “Saudi Arabia of wind,” predicting an “enormous, exponential leap in jobs, manufacturing and infrastructure.”
Part of the reason for the long lead time is the need for extensive tests of local wind conditions, he said.
“It won’t happen overnight,” Rich said. “We are trying to create a truly new industry here and it has to be done right.”
“A far bigger concern for us is finding a qualified workforce to run and maintain the wind farm when it becomes operational.”
In blighted states like Michigan, many former manufacturing workers are already training for green jobs, even though relatively few have been created.
Matthew Derra, 41, lost his job at struggling auto supplier American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc <AXL.N> in July 2008. Now he is taking an associate degree in renewable energy and wants to find a job maintaining wind turbines.
“There’s nothing out there in my old field of work,” he said. “And there will be thousands of people out there chasing every green job, but I have to try.”
“I can’t just sit home and watch television.”
Even in California, which has America’s most aggressive climate change regulations, just 159,000 of the state’s 18 million jobs are considered “green” as of the start of 2008, according to public policy group Next 10.
Still, there are encouraging signs that money is flowing into renewable energy even in a sluggish economy.
Bill Gibson, is a business broker and principal of Gibson & Associates Inc in Pensacola, Florida. Gibson finds buyers for companies that want to sell.
He noted that companies selling luxury items are having trouble finding buyers because gun-shy banks won’t lend for that kind of investment, but he has noticed a lot more interest in renewable or alternative energy firms.
“There are definitely going to be haves and have-nots,” Gibson said. “Green energy is part of the future.”
The green energy industry is also seen as an opportunity for manufacturing firms to retool.
“What concerns me is when I hear people talking about manufacturing in the past tense,” said Virg Bernero, mayor of Lansing. “If we want wind turbines, someone here should manufacture them.”

GEEKS AT THE TABLE
Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, keeps a board covered in bad news — headlines from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Economist about how badly the economy of the state has been faring. Rhode Island’s unemployment rate was 12.7 percent in November, the second highest in the country after Michigan.
“Our problems have made not just national but international headlines,” White said. “That motivates me to find a new way forward.”
Rhode Island is pinning its hopes on a strategy dubbed “Strengthening Providence’s Knowledge Economy.” It has involved bringing together local and state government, the Chamber of Commerce, the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (RIEDC) and hundreds of small hi-tech software companies.
“The geeks have finally been offered a seat at the table,” said business consultant Jack Templin.
White said there was an easy explanation: “The geeks are just about the only ones creating jobs right now.”
Companies like Working Planet, which handles algorithmic online market research for its clients, are now at the table.
“Up until a few years ago the chamber was focused on major companies and its existing membership base,” said Working Planet Marketing Group Inc president and co-founder Soren Ryherd. “Over the past three years the chamber has done an about face and is now also about the smaller companies that are creating jobs.”
“We have also become more organized because we need to reach the local universities so we can find and retain top talent,” he added.
Mike Saul is the interim executive director of the RIEDC and has spent much of his career as a “turnaround guy” taking poorly performing companies and making them thrive. He wants to do the same here, in part because three of his four children, like many of the state’s offspring, live outside Rhode Island because there was no work here for them.
“In any turnaround that is going to work you have to ask where is the enterprise value that I can push forward,” he said. According to Saul, the state’s education system and its wind potential create much of its enterprise value.
“Rhode Island’s attempts at economic development have been episodic in the past, but this time everyone is on the same page,” Saul said. “A crisis makes things happen. It helps individuals reinvent themselves and will help this country reinvent itself.”

COMMENT

I read one comment saying that their 2 children on graduation will have $100K in education debts.
Here in Sweden we can study right thru university completely free of charge, and even get a very generous monthly allowance to help with books and food etc etc

Posted by George | Report as abusive

Toyota dealer weathering the storm, worrying about commercial lending

Nov 16, 2009 17:06 UTC

ROUTE-RECOVERY/

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – It is not an easy time to be an auto dealer. Apart from worrying about when sales will revive, and at what level, Bruce Limbaugh’s biggest worry is access to loans.

“This is a major challenge for our industry,” said the owner of Limbaugh Toyota. “Even more than credit for consumers, I am concerned about the lack of commercial lending for dealers. Local and regional banks in particular are spurning our dealers.”

Limbaugh’s father bought the Toyota dealership that he now runs back in 1989 and sold it to him in 1995. Like the rest of the U.S. auto industry, Limbaugh Toyota has been hurt by a combination of the recession, the U.S. housing crisis and the credit crunch. So far this year new car sales at the dealership are down 22.6 percent. The industry as a whole has seen U.S. sales fall from a peak of 17 million units in 2005 to an estimated level of just over 10 million units in 2009.

“For us, this truly is a Great Recession,” Limbaugh said. “My net worth has been cut in half over the last year.”

That said, Limbaugh said that last month was the dealership’s second most profitable October in 20 years, and that sales were actually up over October 2008.

“Every month since February our bottom line has improved,” he said.

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Over the past year Limbaugh has cut his staff to 67 from 75. He would “rather not cut that anymore. But the market will dictate that.”

Long term, he believes the auto industry and sales will turn around for what for him is truly a family business. He has three sons and a son-in-law working at his dealership and another son-in-law owns the advertising agency that handles his marketing.

Photo by Carlos Barria

Click here for more Route to Recovery
“Do I think we will recover? Absolutely,” he said. “I’m banking my family’s future on it.”

COMMENT

and this was all before their cars starting speeding up and driving through buildings lol… The crazy part is their always rated number #1.

Potty Training | Potty Training Boys | How To Potty Train A Toddler

Posted by Jill Bradlie | Report as abusive

Toyota worker shows off her Kaizen

Nov 16, 2009 16:57 UTC

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – On our way around the Toyota truck engine plant here, we met Shenika Nicholas, who proudly showed off the Kaizen, or continuous improvement, that she came up with during the plant’s three-month shutdown that began in August 2008.

Nicholas, a former schoolteacher who has been here three years, works at a point in the plant where engine blocks are rolled by workers along a short platform on ball bearings. She told us that before the shutdown she was concerned that workers could slip on the ball bearings, but never had time to do anything about it.

She came up with a design whereby workers could walk along rubber pads while pushing the engines along the platform, using waste materials that she found in the plant.

Nicholas said that being able to contribute to safety in the plant meant a great deal to her.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” she said. “I feel so proud to be a part of this.”

Video by Carlos Barria

Religious and commercial billboards collide in Alabama

Nov 16, 2009 16:49 UTC

ROUTE-RECOVERY/

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Billboards in Alabama are a curious mix of the crassly commercial and deeply religious, often side by side.

For instance, we saw “Go to church or the devil will take you” next to a billboard advertising a BBQ restaurant chain. Or “It’s your choice, Heaven or Hell” — where Heaven was depicted with blue skies and white fluffy clouds, while Hell was all fiery flames – shared space with a billboard for gas station with cold beer.

Alabama is firmly within America’s Bible Belt, an area dominated by evangelical Christians where church attendance is very high. Thus it seemed odd that religious messages would stand so close to an advertisement selling earthly wares, as the two seem to be somewhat at odds with each other.

But that was nothing compared to the two-sided billboard we saw a mile or so from downtown Birmingham.

On one side a poster cheerfully proclaimed that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” a reference to the fact that Christmas is less than six weeks away. A picture of a piece of holly was included to underline the poster’s festive, family appeal.

But on the other side was an advertisement for Hooters. For those people not familiar with this chain of bar restaurants, it is best known not for its food but for the physical attributes of its largely young, female staff, who wear tight white t-shirts and snug-fitting, uber-short shorts. A group of these young ladies adorned the advertisement.

The contrast stopped us dead in our tracks. Two messages were worlds apart but stood back to back.

We’d be curious to know what other people think of this combination. Is it just us who find this double billboard extolling the virtues of both Jesus and Hooters striking?

Photo by Carlos Barria

Click here for more Route to Recovery

COMMENT

Greetings, I just registered and wanted to pop in and introduce myself to the people. Let me just say that it is a awesome website that you have here.
Plymouth Voyager

Toyota plant workers sheltered from the downturn

Nov 16, 2009 16:43 UTC

ROUTE-RECOVERY/

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – When the call came in on July 4, 2008 that Toyota was going halt production for three months, Wes Woods was getting ready to watch a fireworks display with his children.

“I was told that not only were we going to stop production, but that we had to come up with a three-month training plan for all our team members within two days,” said Woods, assistant general manager at the Toyota engine plant here.

The extreme slump in auto sales, which peaked at 17 million in 2005 but are expected to barely pass 10 million this year, forced domestic auto companies GM and Chrysler into government-led bankruptcy, and they shuttered plants, slashed their dealership networks and cut tens of thousands of jobs in order to receive government aid.

This Toyota plant, which began production in 2003 and makes big truck engines, did things differently.

“I don’t think anyone anywhere in the auto industry has ever been through anything like this,” said plant president Jim Bolte.

Although the plant shut down for three months to help cut inventory levels, no permanent workers were laid off, though temporary workers were let go and overtime was cut.

Instead, Toyota came up with a three-month training, improvement and cost-cutting plan starting in August 2008 for its 900 employees here in Huntsville.

ROUTE-RECOVERY/

“I was very relieved when I heard they were not going to lay us off,” said Kim Jordan, who works in the plant’s tool shop. “There are not many companies that would do that for its employees.”

Joe Hereford, a trainer at the plant, which has a capacity of 400,000 engines a year, said that Toyota was also upfront with employees throughout the process.

“I was scared at first, but Toyota kept us informed about how things were going,” he said. “They told us the good, the bad and the ugly. We all made the same sacrifices and we all stuck together through this.”

The improvement part of the program was focused on having employees look for Kaizen – Japanese for “continuous improvement – or ways in which to make their work more efficient. Kaizen has been adopted by employees here as both noun and verb, as have other terms like muda (waste) and yokoten (borrowing the best practices of others).

ROUTE-RECOVERY/

“I came up with a couple of Kaizens for my work,” said Karen Abernathy, who works on the assembly line. “I found that there was a fair amount of motion muda at my work station.”

She suggested to management that the location of her tools and parts be rearranged, shaving 3 seconds off her work per engine.

“Toyota opened up a lot of doors for us and allowing us to participate has been a great experience,” Abernathy said.

Assistant production manager Tim Miles said that the collective improvements from employees on the assembly line that Abernathy works on – a few seconds here, a few there – totaled 416 seconds.

“Individually the small improvements don’t like sound much, but together they really add up,” he said.

ROUTE-RECOVERY/

During the three-month down period the plant came up with 3,500 Kaizens. Employees were also encouraged to look for financial waste. Lisa O’Neill, an accounting specialist at the plant, said so far employees had come up with ideas that have cut plant annual expenses by $1.2 million so far.

“If I have 30 managers that means I have 30 auditors looking at expenses,” Bolte said. “But if I have 900 auditors out on the plant floor then I know the results are going to be better.”

In August this year Toyota decided to have four-cylinder engines for its Camry and RAV4 models at the Huntsville plant, which will create an additional 240 jobs.

Bolte said that the way Toyota handled the plant’s down time last year showed employees that they can trust their employer.

“When we made our initial announcement about our non-production time and told our team members that they would not lose their jobs, we could see that many of them maybe didn’t believe us,” he said. “And probably they had heard the same from management at other companies and then were fired two weeks later.”

“Now they know that when we say things we really mean them,” he added.

ROUTE-RECOVERY/

Photo by Carlos Barria

Click here for more Route to Recovery

COMMENT

Only three words are worth noting:

1) non-union
2) non-union
3) non-union

Until big unions are broken up to stop slopping in the pig trough of production inefficiency, innovation and motivation will be crushed in America. No amount of bailout money will change that fact. Yes – government unions are included.

Posted by Joe Worker | Report as abusive

Healthy food on the road? You must be joking

Nov 16, 2009 16:13 UTC

ROUTE-RECOVERY/

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Just about anyone who has ever used America’s interstate system and cares about what they eat can tell you that it is very difficult to find decent, healthy food on the road.

Junky fast food is about your only option. Burgers, fried chicken, greasy subs, pizza, burgers again… In a seemingly endless loop on long journeys, the same few establishments turn up again and again and again alongside the interstate.

A dreary selection of mass-produced, unhealthy and boring choice: High in calories, lots of cheese, fries and high-sugar soft drinks – though you can have the diet option to feel better about yourself. This is the industrialized food industry at its worst.

Healthy eating? Tasty eating? Try somewhere else.

When you spend a lot of time on the road, as we have on this trip already and will do for a number of days to come, you tend to notice these things, and then comment on them out loud. Particularly around lunchtime.

As it happens, this just happened to be the time of day this conversation came up. As the interstate exits rolled past, we looked at the same unappealing choice of the same fast food rolling by. Did we complain? You don’t know the half of it.

Eventually, made cantankerous by a very early start and urged on by our growling stomachs, we decided this was worth a blog and decided to stop at a fast food restaurant so Carlos could take pictures to go with the blog.

We agreed that we would stop at the next fast food restaurant we saw, which happened to be McDonald’s. They appear to have more places to eat along the highways of America than anyone else, so perhaps the law of averages made it more than likely it would be them. Carlos didn’t want McDonald’s, as he had promised he would not eat their food on this trip. He broke his promise.

We went through the drive thru and ordered a Big Mac each with small fries and a small diet soda.

Sitting out in the sun while we munched half-heartedly on our food, we looked at the nutritional information on the fries and the burger. The Big Max weighed in 540 calories, the small fries at 230. Nearly 800 calories – the recommended daily intake for an adult is about 2,000 calories – without bigger fries or a full-on soft drink.

That seemed a lot to us, despite knowing in advance it was bad for us and high in calories. Not to single out the fast food chain represented by a clown, all the others along the road would no doubt provide the same type of artery-clogging junk.

We just wish it were otherwise.

COMMENT

Sounds like you guys wanted a fast and easy lunch, so you got what you were looking for.
Cracker Barrel resturants serve homestyle meals every day. Those are scattered all along the interstate system throughout the Southeast. In Birmingham, you’ll find that Golden Rule BBQ (numerous locations) serve vegetable plates, salads, broiled and grilled fish, chicken,etc.
There are a number of other options around Birmingham and the Southeast to locate a good meal. Sounds like you should have used your GPS for more than just directions.

Posted by Ed | Report as abusive

A crowded race to run scandal-hit Birmingham, Alabama

Nov 15, 2009 20:26 UTC

ROUTE-RECOVERY/

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Plagued by scandal and the struggle to stave off bankruptcy, the race to become mayor of this former industrial city in America’s Deep South includes the interim mayor and an attorney who styles himself as being in the mold of President Obama.

“I am a fresh face for a new beginning in Birmingham,” said Patrick Cooper, who came in second to Larry Langford in 2007. “I like to think of myself as part of a new generation of African American leaders that include Barack Obama.”

“While every other city in the South has been moving forward, we have been stuck standing where we are,” he added, speaking at his campaign headquarters where staff were preparing campaign banners. “We may as well have been in reverse.”

ROUTE-RECOVERY/
Langford was found guilty late last month of charges ranging from bribery to criminal conspiracy. The growing field in the race to serve out the rest of his two year term has several figures who have tried before and lost.

Apart from Cooper, that includes interim mayor Carole Smitherman – who has had two unsuccessful bids – Jefferson County commissioner William Bell – three previous attempts – Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, and councilman Steven Hoyt.

The special election will take place on December 8.

The race takes place against a backdrop of Langford’s trial and the ongoing struggle by Jefferson to avert what would be the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history over a multibillion dollar sewer debt. Birmingham also faces a $20 million shortfall in its 2010 budget.

When we arrived to meet the interim mayor, instead of the interview we expected we stumbled upon a press conference where she announced she was cutting 7 appointed jobs from the mayor’s office to save $500,000.

“I understand these are tough economic times and I could not in good conscious ask each department to tighten their belt if the Mayor’s office didn’t tighten first,” she said.

Afterward Smitherman told us that she had asked city department heads to come up with possible budget cuts, but added that the city would just have to provide the same level of service with less money.

“Everybody has to put their shoulder to the wheel,” she said.

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Over at his campaign headquarters, Cooper said that 30 years ago the debate in Birmingham was focused on joblessness and rising crime, the same issues the city faces today.

“I don’t want another 30 years to go by and have us facing the same issues,” he said.

Cooper said he wants to follow the lead of the Obama administration and institute a local stimulus package paid for by existing taxes that would hire the unemployed to clean up the city.

Whoever wins next month would appear to have their work cut out in trying to persuade local voters that corruption is endemic and deep-rooted here.

“All those politicians want is to make money, they don’t care about us,” said Ernest Blair, 45, an unemployed construction worker.

And Alyce Tyler, 32, who works at a fast food restaurant, said that she doubted that things would change, whoever won the election.

“People used to run for office to serve the voters,” she said. “Now it’s all about personal gain. I’m sick of it.”

Photos by Carlos Barria

Click here for more Route to Recovery

COMMENT

Go to college, get a degree. There are pell grants available from the Government. You have to want to rise above the muck and then make a real effort to do so. Education and hard work are the only two ingredients that will fix that city. Of course that is asking too much of people these days isn’t it? You reap what you sow.

Posted by Bart | Report as abusive
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