Foreign companies providing jobs to Americans

Time spent as a child in those nimble little planes inspired her to get her pilot’s license and study engineering. But the kind of attractive job she wanted could not be found when she was attending college in Mississippi during the 1990s. So, like many others, she left the area to find employment — going first to Charleston, South Carolina, then to Atlanta.

In 2006, she heard of a chance to return to her home state, for a job at American Eurocopter, part of the EADS consortium, the European airplane and military equipment maker.

EADS planned to build a second plant in Columbus, Mississippi, and make rescue helicopters for the United States Army. Ryan applied, was hired as a flight test engineer and immediately flew to Germany for training.

Asked how she and her co-workers felt about owing their livelihoods to a company based overseas, Ryan, 35, responded, “I don’t think anybody here has a problem with it.”

As scores of companies are hemorrhaging jobs, closing plants and slashing compensation, foreign employers have become a lifeline for Ryan and millions of other Americans. While they haven’t been immune from the recession, foreign-owned companies in the United States have a work force of more than 5.3 million, or some 3.5 per cent of all workers, and are spread across the 50 states in sectors from manufacturing to retail and publishing. If these jobs did not exist, the nation’s unemployment rate would be above 13 per cent.

Investments in the United States by big car companies like Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Mercedes-Benz have received the greatest share of attention over the past two decades. But there are also tens of thousands of Americans working for companies like the Tata Group of India, which recently reopened the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan and makes Eight O’Clock Coffee; Haier, the Chinese appliance maker, with a refrigerator plant in South Carolina and an impressive headquarters in a landmark building in Manhattan; and Nestle, the Swiss food company, which employs hundreds to make Nesquik and Coffee-Mate in Indiana.

Even Anheuser-Busch, America’s best-selling beer maker, is owned by a Belgian company, InBev.

Foreign companies may touch a nerve in American society and may still be an object of fear and distrust among many, who view foreign investment as a threat to the American worker and way of life. But foreign investment isn’t simply about helping workers earn a weekly paycheck. Foreign companies that invest in the United States are having a significant — and largely positive — impact on not only the lives of workers, but also the health of the American economy and society as a whole.

When foreign companies open a factory or buy a business in a region they also stimulate local commerce and create a demand for more homes, shops, schools and restaurants. They contribute money to schools, parks and towns, and lure consultants and technicians who then provide more jobs. This ripple effect explains why governors, mayors and economic development officials are so eager for foreign investors. Without foreign investment, says Mitch Daniels, the Republican Governor of Indiana, “we’d be a Dust Bowl.” In Ryan’s case, a job with a foreign company was an opportunity to move back home and be close to relatives and friends. But whether home is Mississippi or Michigan, Nashville or New York — or even if moving home isn’t the goal at all — foreign companies provide American workers with more than jobs. They also provide them with options.

Judy Flynn, one of Ryan’s co-workers, got a second chance at a manufacturing career through American Eurocopter. For 20 years, she ran the purchasing operations at United Technologies in Columbus, Mississippi, an American-owned company that supplied auto parts to customers like GM and Chrysler. She started on the assembly line and spent 10 years assembling motors before she was promoted to an office job and then to purchasing supervisor.

But soon, Flynn, who saw every parts order that came into the factory, noticed that requisitions for parts the plant had previously been fulfilling were instead being sent to its operations in China. “I had an idea that something was happening globally,” she said. Indeed it was. In 1999, United Technologies put her division up for sale, and in 2003, it closed the plant entirely, putting its 2,000 employees out of work. Flynn, a mother of three daughters with no college degree — “I had ‘life experience,’ “ she said with a smile — applied at American Eurocopter as soon as she heard it planned to open its original facility, a plant making civilian rescue helicopters, at the nearby Golden Triangle Airport.

She landed an office job, and after four years worked her way to supervisor in the materials department. Known to her co-workers as “Miss Judy,” she is easy to spot by her bright blue lanyard, bearing her company identification card.

Still, for her, as for many American Eurocopter employees, the adjustment wasn’t so easy. In the company’s first year, turnover was rampant as workers struggled to adjust to the painstaking routine of assembling helicopters. Inside the factory, the time-consuming work was as challenging as a skilled trades position in a car plant, demanding precision, attention to detail and a reasonable understanding of helicopter mechanics. It was a departure from the routine of a typical factory.

The dropout rate was high, “mainly driven by the fact of people not knowing very well what we were doing,” said Marc Paganini, the Chief Executive of American Eurocopter. Executives soon realised that something had to be done to protect their new investment.

Most of the original workers had left, taking what little experience they had with them, and newcomers were making all kinds of mistakes, which were costly given that the helicopters being assembled were used for rescue missions, where lives were quite literally at stake.

But instead of giving up on their workers and replacing them with more-experienced counterparts from overseas, managers decided to spend more time interviewing and assessing American workers, and to provide more training once they were on the plant floor.

Flynn said the attitude at the plant became, “We will help you to succeed; we are determined you will succeed here.” Soon, the turnover slowed, and a second plant opened next door.

The factories gave EADS the opening it wanted in the American market, letting it compete for an even bigger prize: a $35 billion contract to build refueling tanker planes for the Air Force, which it landed in February 2008 in a stiff competition with Boeing.

EADS, which subsequently lost the contract after the General Accounting Office found flaws in the way the work was awarded, plans to try again for the deal, as does Boeing. If it succeeds, EADS plans to build an assembly plant in Mobile, Alabama.

“From the very beginning of the creation of EADS, we were looking at doing more in the United States,” Paganini said. “We knew if we built here, we could sell here.”

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