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Volvo focuses on workforce as it builds out site

Manufacturing
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Volvo Cars’ Berkeley County campus now has a paint shop, utility building, body shop and final assembly facilities, as well as several large stormwater ponds. (Photo/Provided by Jon Engle, Green Eyes Aero LLC)

Volvo Cars’ top executive in South Carolina wants more people from the communities surrounding the Berkeley County plant to be eligible to work at the automaker.

Out of an average of 40,000 applications an S.C. manufacturer typically receives when building a new plant, 4% make it through the initial screening process, said Katarina Fjording, purchasing and manufacturing vice president for Volvo Car U.S. Operations, quoting data from readySC.

Volvo in the U.S.

137
Employees in South Carolina.

2,000
Expected number of new hires over the next few years, possibly growing to 4,000 workers over a decade.

2,800
Acres in the new campus under construction on the Camp Hall Tract in Berkeley County, off Interstate 26 near exit 187.

S60
The sporty, midsize car model currently under development in Sweden that will be built at the S.C. site and exported globally.

2018
Year the first car is set to roll off the assembly line at the new plant.

65,000
Cars Volvo expects to produce annually in Berkeley County.

30,000
Initial number of vehicles to be exported annually through the Port of Charleston.

18%
Increase in U.S. sales in 2016 compared with 2015.

206,000
Cars sold in the U.S. last year.

6%
Increase in global sales in 2016 compared with 2015.

535,000
Cars sold globally last year.

Source: Volvo Cars

Only those 1,500 or so applicants pass the entry skills tests, preliminary interviews, background checks or drug screenings required to move forward in the interview process, Fjording said.

Before Volvo started building its automotive manufacturing campus in Berkeley County, Fjording heard repeatedly from other large manufacturers in the state that up to 70% of their workforces are hired from outside the Southeast. Companies are hiring most of their workers from the rest of North America and Europe.

Fjording said Volvo wants to increase the likelihood that local workers will be hired by the manufacturers setting up shop in their communities.

“Our vision and road to success is to close the gap,” Fjording told business leaders during a Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce event Friday on Daniel Island.

Fjording said companies could use some of the state-provided money meant to offset relocation costs for workforce development and education initiatives instead.

“I think we can change this together,” she said. “Maybe not overnight, but we need to have a vision that we want to change this.”

Volvo received a huge incentive package from the state, including some $216 million for site prep work and infrastructure projects, and other perks worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for office space, sponsorships and branding opportunities, according to S.C. Commerce Department documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

“We have the salary and benefit costs, but on top of that you get relocation costs. ... What if we could take that money and put it straight into the schools, into education instead?” Fjording said.

Hourly workers at Volvo will put in 32 hours of screening and training before being hired. Once employed, they will partake in a 14-week training program.

Volvo is working with readySC, Trident Technical College and Commerce to develop a curriculum outlining the training and education residents need before applying.

“This way they can know beforehand what they need to adjust or read up on ahead of time so they can up their chances of qualifying,” Fjording said. “We think this is a small step towards getting more local workforce opportunities. ... We really want to hire as many as possible locally.”

Building out the worksite

Volvo cars have been sold in the United States for nearly 60 years, but dwindling sales over the past decade spurred Volvo executives’ decision to put down roots in North America.

Following months of economic development competition among several sites in multiple states, Volvo Cars chose Berkeley County in 2015 for its first North American plant. The Sweden-based, Chinese-owned automaker plans to invest $600 million in building out its car manufacturing campus.

The site now has a paint shop, utility building, body shop and final assembly facilities, as well as several large stormwater ponds. The site will eventually include a test track for customers and a museum showcasing Volvo’s history.

Work also includes setting up IT operations, establishing a purchasing and manufacturing operation to enable a possible second vehicle, and building out the logistics footprint, which includes a new rail line running between the site and the Columbus Street Terminal in downtown Charleston.

The remaining 4,000 acres in the Camp Hall Tract will be reserved for Volvo suppliers or other automotive or industrial companies. These companies could come into the region, similar to BMW’s ripple effect in the Upstate, as production ramps up.

The U.S. market is now Volvo’s second-largest car market behind China, and U.S. sales have been rising over the past few years. Fjording said the company hopes the new plant will sustain the U.S. market’s appetite for Volvo cars.

“This is our way of taking back this market,” she said.

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

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