Louisville, Ky. (WHAS11)- In a one-on-one interview, Ford's new manager at the Louisville Assembly Plant says the automaker is sticking to its pledge of almost 2,000 new jobs in Louisville.
John Savona is primed to play a big role in Louisville's automotive history.
"We're growing," said Savona, "It's nice to be growing again."
Savona says the rebuild of the 56 year old facility is ahead of schedule, with heavy equipment moving in by late March to install what amounts to a new lease on life. By September, the workers who were laid off when the last Explorer rolled off the line in December will begin to get back on the payroll.
"Our plan is on track," said Savona, "We have a lot of demolition going on right now. We have a very active construction zone in the plant. We're completely transforming the plant, wall to pillars."
Photographs supplied by Ford show a gutted building where two months ago the plant floor was whirring with robotics, conveyors and work stations. Much of the old equipment has been scrapped and recycled, Savona said, explaining that much of it is obsolete because of the age of the plant.
The old equipment will be replaced with a flexible line capable of producing up to six different models on Ford's C-class platform. The installation of new tooling, body shop equipment and other upgrades represents a $600 million investment supported by state and city tax incentives.
"A lot of responsibility goes along with that investment," Savona said, "and of course we're going to invest in people, so we've got to pull off a very big plan and we're very confident in that plan and I'm very excited."
The plant, which had about 1100 hourly workers at the end of the Explorer era, will have 2900 workers punching the clock by the end of the year, Savona said. He explained that each shift will need more workers than previously because of increased line speeds, added technology and in sourcing of some work previously performed by suppliers, such as sheet metal and general assembly work.
The employment boost will first draw on people from other Ford factories, then outside hires.
Changes at other facilities will create opportunity for people to come to Louisville Assembly, Sovana said. A number of Louisville Assembly Plant workers transferred to the Kentucky Truck Plant on Chamberlain Lane in eastern Jefferson County.
"(Kentucky Truck Plant workers) know they are going to get some information from us soon as a company," Savona said, "We're working on a plan and I think people will get the opportunity to come back to their home location which is here at Louisville Assembly."
Union leaders say the hiring needs will prompt the most Ford hires in Louisville since the explosion of Explorer sales in the early 1990's.
"People that are going to help us grow the business, that are going to help us make the business better," Savona said, "And we're looking for... we feel we have the opportunity to go out and pick the best people."
"We're going to start bringing in people for training late third quarter and fourth quarter," he continued.
The new hires will be paid $14 per hour, about half of the hourly rate for current Ford workers. A collective bargaining agreement struck with the UAW in 2007 set up the two tier wage system. The agreement allows up to 20 percent of Ford's total workforce to be paid at the lower rate.
With 1800 new jobs on the way to Fern Valley Road, that wage difference will play out side by side, which concerns union leaders.
"In a couple or two or three years on the job, I think that it's going to finally come around," said Rocky Comito, UAW Local 862 President, who says he can imagine the day when one worker turns to another and says, "Hey, why am I making a lot less than what you're making?"
"I don't know if it's just me," Comito continued, "but my biggest concern is that turnover is going to be high."
The new plant manager, however, says his limited experience with the two tier wage system "is very positive."
"We haven't had an issue with that with people working side by side or working in a different department or having a different skill set working together," Savona said, "So, I don't foresee any problems here in Louisville."
Because the 20 percent thresh hold applies to Ford's entire UAW workforce in the United States, which numbers more than 50,000 workers, some Ford facilities could have even larger proportions of second tier wage earners.
"That's correct," Savona said, "That's how the national agreement works, so as we develop that people plan and finalize how many people within the company at other locations are going to be available, that's really going to firm up that number by the end of the year."
"We take our seniority and experience in our current workforce very serious. So, that's the way we'll continue to prioritize," he added.
Savona declined comment whether Ford plans to seek a higher percentage of second tier wage earners in the next collective bargaining agreement, which is being negotiated this year.
"We're still a little early to talk details of our strategic plan," Sovana said, "but our goal as a company is to make sure we remain competitive in all aspects of our business. So, whether that's talking about employment levels or wage rates, we're looking at all aspects of the business and we want to make sure we stay competitive."
Savona paid a courtesy call on Wednesday to UAW Local 862 President Rocky Comito and the Louisville Assembly Plant UAW Building Chairman Steve Stone.
The new plant manager explained that he started his 22 years of employment at Ford as a security guard at the Wayne (Michigan) Assembly Plant where his father worked on the line and retired as a skilled tradesman.
"We have great partners in the UAW here at Louisville," Savona said, "We have a great salaried workforce, very high degree of technical competence and skill with our people. So I'm confident we're going to deliver a great plan and good value for the state of Kentucky."