Just because the Triad sits hundreds of miles from Detroit doesn’t mean it’s immune to the ailments of the automobile industry. It has no assembly plants, but it does have factories that make car parts. And some are hurting. Statesville-based ASMO North Carolina Inc., which makes direct-current motors used in power windows and other devices by Ford, Chrysler and Toyota, will eliminate 200 jobs when it closes plants in Thomasville and Mount Airy this month. Last summer, more than 100 workers at the Blue Water Automotive Systems Inc. factory in Burlington lost jobs making cup holders for Ford. And the problem isn’t peculiar to the Triad. Last month, Wilmington-based Guilford Mills Inc. eliminated 115 jobs when it closed a plant in Fuquay-Varina that makes fabric for car interiors. Plant managers around the state watched anxiously as 2008 drew to a close, hoping Congress would help a domestic automobile industry beset by low demand.
Those are ominous developments in a sector that has become one of the state Commerce Department’s recruiting targets. But North Carolina still has more than 160 auto-parts makers that employ more than 17,000 workers, and officials won’t stop pursuing other parts makers just because a few are in trouble, says Kathy Neal, an assistant Commerce secretary. “They’re not all struggling. It’s very company-specific. Look at the tire industry. Everybody still needs tires, and everybody still needs catalytic converters.” And truck makers still need axles, so Louisville, Ky.-based Sypris Technologies Inc. plans to add 203 workers during the next four years at its factory in Lenoir, where it already employs 166.
But that’s no consolation for companies such as ASMO North Carolina, part of Kosai, Japan-based ASMO Co. David Clifton, vice president of the Tar Heel operation, says 84 workers who lost jobs in the Triad will transfer to the more-automated Statesville plant, part of an expansion that will boost employment there from nearly 425 to about 550. But he has warned them it is only a temporary solution, regardless of what happens in the automotive industry. “In two years, there will be no need for those jobs here. They’re not totally safe.”