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With a highly trained workforce at BMW Manufacturing in Greer that now exceeds 9,000 people, the German automaker has established itself not only as one of the biggest employers in the state but also one of its most important workforce development innovators.
BMW Manufacturing President Knudt Flor quoted the plant's employment numbers during an event at the BMW Zentrum in Greer late last week — and promised the plant will continue to grow just as it has, almost without pause, for the past two decades.
"We will pass the five-digit number soon," he said.
Flor was speaking at the latest graduation ceremony of BMW's shop-floor apprenticeship program called BMW Scholars. Students in the program pile a full-time technical-college course load over two years onto 20 hours a week of paid training at the plant.
Now in its sixth year, the program’s 128 graduates have all been offered BMW contracts, and company officials hold the program up as a model of theory-and-practice workforce training.
“Whatever we do in the plant, it highly depends on the people,” Flor told graduates on Thursday. “To invest in something, you just need money … With money, you can buy machines, you can buy buildings. But the human factor is what makes the company successful.”
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The number of jobs at the plant today is more than four times what was promised when BMW announced it would build a plant in the Upstate 25 years ago. This, and Flor's prediction the workforce will soon exceed 10,000, are thanks in large part to the success of car models built at the plant. Out of the more than 2 million BMWs sold worldwide in 2016, about a fifth were X models made in South Carolina. And although the larger, more expensive X5 and X6 SUVs experienced small declines in sales last year, the X3 enjoyed a nearly 14 percent jump in sales. Its sister the X4 also enjoyed a 5.5 percent gain.
Combined, the South Carolina plant produced more than 411,000 of the X models and exported 70 percent of them in 2016.
Flor tied those exports to jobs and prosperity during his remarks last week, putting a decidedly German spin on promises for a bright future in Greer and the state as a whole.
“If you want to talk about creating wealth, you have to create jobs," Flor said. "The jobs are created by export. So we think we are one of the main contributors to the success of this country, and especially for South Carolina. We want to go this way further with you. We consider South Carolina home.”
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Getting a job at BMW these days is relatively easy, but holding onto it and rising in the company is another matter. Almost everyone living in the Upstate knows someone who has worked there at one point or another. This was by design: From the plant's earliest days, managers restricted hiring for production jobs to a 75-mile radius around the site in Greer, BMW Communications Director Sky Foster said.
Foster, who is from Gaffney, was the first South Carolinian hired at the plant back in 1993. For the plant's first 100 shop-floor jobs, the final number of resumes exceeded 160,000, she said.
"The amazing part of it for me was how much of an impact and energy people had around BMW," Foster said. "We had resumes from the floor to the ceiling."
These days, one of the largest pool of workers at the plant do not actually work for BMW. Augusta, Ga.-based MAU Workforce Solutions has provided the plant with production-line workers and forklift operators since 2006, when it beat out an international group of bidders to secure a long-term contract with BMW.
“Every staffing company in the world wants to do business with BMW,” MAU President Randy Hatcher told The Greenville News.
Since the beginning of the year, MAU has hosted 11 "hiring events" for BMW jobs, including a job fair on June 21 in Anderson and extended walk-in hours on Saturday at the staffing agency’s office in Greenville. The company expanded its BMW recruiting efforts on March 12 with an announced 7.8 percent boost in starting pay. MAU hires can now expect to earn at least $16.50 to $17.50 an hour, and they receive full benefits. Additionally, MAU started offering $2,000 sign-on bonuses for BMW jobs in April, bonuses that are still in place.
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With direct-hire production jobs at the Greer plant also currently posted on the BMW career site, all signs point to a hiring boom at the plant. This past week, BMW's site also had about a dozen salaried jobs in engineering, systems design, quality control, safety and administration – positions whose prospects are recruited from top engineering programs around the country, said Ryan Childers, BMW’s manager of apprentice and associate training in Greer.
BMW does not release figures on the breakdown of its workforce, but MAU's Hatcher said the staffing agency is generally where most hourly workers start.
“There is a way for people to be hired through us at BMW,” Hatcher said. “That path is there. I can’t say I actually know the formula, but they do hire a lot of our people. Most of the production workers being hired, most of them generally come through us.”
Hatcher acknowledged that staffing agencies provide clients such as BMW the flexibility they need to let people go quickly when demand declines or there is a general downturn in the economy. This was shown in dramatic fashion in 2008 when 500 temporary workers at the plant in South Carolina were laid off.
Critics at the time, particularly labor-union representatives in Germany, accused the still profitable company of “short-sighted profiteering and permanently unsettling its employees,” according to a February 2008 article from Der Spiegel magazine.
While layoffs are always painful, MAU’s flexibility model does offer a silver lining to workers facing layoffs, Hatcher said.
“Let’s take BMW. If they were to lay off somebody, they have no other work for them,” Hatcher said. “But if we lay somebody off from BMW, we can send them to 50 other clients. We could theoretically send them to other clients, and we do that all the time.”
The path to a starter job at the plant — production associate or forklift operator — requires applicants hold a high school diploma, have at least a year's experience working anywhere, have a clean record and, depending on the job, be able to lift 50 pounds several times in an hour.
The work is not for everyone.
"The automotive industry is not an easy business," Hatcher said. "Those are big vehicles, right, big parts and everything."
In addition to relatively high pay for a temp job and the potential of becoming a direct hire at BMW, working there offers this inducement to would-be workers: training and transferable skills. BMW and its staffing partners provide a range of in-house training, ranging from a couple of weeks to a couple of years.
Hatcher opened an MAU forklift training center two years ago on Pelham Road. The facility has more 4,500 square feet dedicated to teaching applicants the basics of all powered warehouse lifters. With demand for the space from MAU’s other clients, the company made the decision to open a second, 20,000 square-foot training facility. It opened about a month ago on Old Woodruff Road.
“Nobody had done this before,” Hatcher said. “We are going to bring the workforce to BMW and other employers. … So we can take somebody and in a matter of days put them on multiple types of powered equipment.”
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The technical college-based BMW Scholars program, meanwhile, holds the possibility of direct-hire contracts for its graduates, although contracts are not guaranteed. BMW also offers advanced training, called the Road to Production Management (RPM) to about a dozen hourly workers every year. For salaried BMW jobs in engineering and administration, the company offers the Engineering and Operations Management program to about 15 top university graduates across the country.
Maria Puckett of Spartanburg started out as a production temp at the plant. Two years ago, she was working on the shop floor 40 hours a week while also carrying a full course load in electronics engineering technology at Spartanburg Community College. After taking a test, undergoing several interviews, passing muster in terms of her grades and chosen major, she was admitted into the BMW Scholars program. Fifty BMW Scholars were accepted from the area's three technical colleges in Anderson, Greenville and Spartanburg counties; about 30 made it to the graduation ceremony last week.
Puckett and her friends will start work for the BMW plant this week. She will be an equipment services associate, meaning she will be among the go-to associates whenever a robot breaks down at the plant. ESA's are among the most highly trained production associates at the plant.
"So basically, when the line is down, we are the first responders," Puckett said. "We go out and work with the robots and keep them running."
James Curry, 19, is a current BMW Scholar in his first semester with the program at Greenville Technical College. Like other scholars, he attends classes Monday through Thursday then works 10-hour shifts on Friday and Saturday at the plant. Last week Curry, who graduated from Berea High School with a 4.0 GPA, was taking final exams in subjects like metrology at the Tech campus on South Pleasantburg Drive. Like most days, he wore a BMW hat and shirt with his name on it.
"My only day off is Sunday," Curry said with a smile, adding that he intends to stay with the premium German automaker when he graduates.