In the three-plus years since Toyota announced it would build vehicles in Northeast Mississippi, this region – as much or more so than the rest of the nation – has felt the jobs-related stress of the Great Recession.
Unemployment has soared as high as 13 percent in the region, and traditional manufacturing mainstays such as furniture have seen especially tough times.
But a steady shift in the region’s economic base has been occurring over a much longer period. From 1995 to 2008, Northeast Mississippi lost more than 30,000 manufacturing jobs – 41 percent of the total.
That trend was a big impetus in the formation of the PUL Alliance – Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties – and the development of the Wellspring site near Blue Springs that the Toyota plant now occupies. It was clear even early in this decade that the region needed to accelerate efforts to replace the jobs that were leaving and find a new niche in an expanding economic sector.
One of those was the automotive industry, especially in the South, which in the last couple of decades had developed its own automotive “corridor.” An automaker wasn’t the only type of industry Wellspring developers and marketers had in mind, but it was probably tops on the list. And among automakers, Toyota would have been their first choice.
Last week’s announcement that the Blue Springs plant will gear up for production of the Corolla in the fall of 2011 was instructive in demonstrating why.
First, this is a company that keeps its commitments. Second, it historically has offered “stable” employment; it doesn’t overstaff when times are good and lay off workers when sales are down or the economy goes bad.
Gov. Haley Barbour underscored that point at the Toyota celebration/announcement with this statistic: Since 2006, U.S. automotive employment has declined 36 percent. The number of Toyota workers in this country is virtually unchanged in the same period.
Other companies less oriented to the long term might have walked away from Blue Springs when the economy went south. Toyota didn’t.
That the company takes its commitments seriously – including its commitments to employees, or team members in company parlance – is, as Barbour noted, a principal reason they were wanted here.
Toyota won’t by itself carry the Northeast Mississippi economy into future prosperity, of course. But it will certainly be a pacesetter for others and for wider economic growth.
The jobs it will produce aren’t limited to the 2,000 at the plant itself; in fact, there ultimately should be more jobs created by its suppliers, most of whom will be located nearby in the region. And they will be jobs that require higher skills and more education than the manufacturing jobs that have been lost.
Then there’s the psychological impact of a premier world manufacturer in the region, both for Northeast Mississippi’s aspirations for itself and outsiders’ view of the area’s possibilities.
In short, the confirmation of Toyota’s long-term presence in Northeast Mississippi marks a major milestone in the transition to a new economic era in the region – one that will require a marshaling of the region’s resources to equip our work force to take full advantage of the opportunities it offers.
NEMS Daily Journal