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Economy may leave Ford employees behind

Ford Motor Co.'s 2,400 employees in Norfolk probably don't need an expert to tell them that they could be left behind as the economy moves ahead.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ford Motor Co.'s 2,400 employees in Norfolk probably don't need an expert to tell them that they could be left behind as the economy moves ahead.

As Ford and other American companies continue to shutter plants in response to foreign competition and other problems, there are a dwindling number of available manufacturing jobs in Virginia and other states. And what the Dearborn, Mich., automaker now offers to its local unionized workers — an average $65,000 a year with overtime — won't be easily replaced without relocating or changing lines of work. Those wages are about twice the regional average and at the high end of the manufacturing pay scale.

"We have a fairly robust regional economy," Rod Woolard, Norfolk's development director, said after Ford announced plans Thursday to close its Norfolk and St. Paul, Minn., plants. "The opportunity for re-employment is probably fairly good; the opportunity at those wage levels is certainly more problematic."

Economists say competition for jobs at other auto factories in Virginia and other states is likely to be tough as the U.S. auto industry continues to restructure. There is only one other large auto assembly plant in Virginia — a Volvo truck operation that employed about 3,000 in Dublin at last count. It is more than 300 miles away and, for the purposes of Ford's workers, might as well be in another state.

Interestingly enough, Japanese companies like Toyota Motor Corp. are successfully building vehicles in U.S. plants, paying similar wages and benefits. But again, those golden jobs could be hard to pin down, and workers would be forced to uproot.

For those who don't want to move after the Norfolk plant closes in 2008, similar jobs might be found in the transportation equipment sector, which employs about 27,000 people in Hampton Roads, or perhaps the region's shipyards, economic officials said. The largest is Northrop Grumman Newport News, which employs about 19,000, according to the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine suggested that the Ford workers might also have luck with the container shipping firm Maersk Line, which is building a large terminal in Portsmouth.

"These are not manufacturing jobs, but they're not completely different, and I think that remains probably the best long-term play for Hampton Roads — to be the most active port on the East Coast," Kaine said.

For now, the state is focusing on the training needs of Ford workers so they can remain in the labor market, said Virginia Commerce Secretary Patrick O. Gottschalk.

The plant's closing is likely to have a ripple effect on auto parts manufacturers and other companies in Hampton Roads. But the region's economy is so large that, as long as it keeps chugging along, it is unlikely to be significantly impacted. Both the regional and state economies have been robust.

"It's really big for those people, but it's not a devastating blow like it would be to some of those little communities in southwest Virginia," said Achsah Carrier, a researcher with the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia.

Even so, William F. Mezger, chief economist of the Virginia Employment Commission, warns that the timing of military cutbacks recommended by the base-closings commission could pose a threat. And though the Hampton Roads economy has received a boost by supplying the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, that may be winding down in a few years, he said.

"There are a lot of uncertainties out there," said Mezger.