The Southern Road: Under The Factory Roof

I can’t stop thinking about Corey Burkett. And Tonya Williams. And the Burton family.

These folks – and thousands more – are southerners who have joined automobile companies to plot new careers and, hopefully, achieve some of their personal and financial goals. And the jobs along the Southern Road aren’t just going to people who were born in the South.

During my trip, I met people with roots in Detroit who made a reverse migration from the North, landing positions at the foreign automakers. Others traveled across oceans, from Korea, Japan and Germany.

These are the people you’ll see when you take a tour of a car plant. I got to talk to a couple dozen while I was on the Southern Road, and I was struck by the similarities and differences among the people I met.

All of them, it seems, feel the auto industry is their future, and the future of their communities and their states. Numerous times people said they felt “blessed” to have landed jobs for which hundreds of thousands of applications came in.

The pay for these positions generally starts around $15 an hour, but some earn more, and promotions seem to be readily available. These plants aren’t union, and there doesn’t seem to be any overwhelming drive to organize them.

You never know, as a reporter, whether people have been briefed on your arrival. But I saw more folks smile and wave at me than in any factory I’d ever visited up north. The employees in places like Mercedes, Hyundai and BMW are also used to being interviewed. Some have even starred in commercials and on the local news.

So, who’s working under the roof?

%Gallery-164491%Burkett, who I met at Hyundai’s Montgomery, Alabama, plant, has some awesome responsibilities. He’s the manager of the paint line, where Hyundai paints each car that’s built in the plant. He supervises more than 140 people, including an assistant manager, three group leaders and more than 100 assembly line workers.

Before he came to Hyundai, Burkett worked at Rheem’s nearby factory, making water heaters. He was already used to industrial work, so the idea of making cars “wasn’t a big shock or adjustment,” he says. His dad, who works at a bakery, and his mom, who is a supervisor at the county jail, were excited that he was getting a chance to join the big new company in town.

Burkett started on the bottom rung in May, 2004, installing fixtures in the paint shop and working on its conveyors. “You learn a lot,” he says of the first job. Promotions rapidly followed. Now, Burkett’s day begins at 6 a.m., when he receives communications from the previous shift (Hyundai is a three shift operation).

As the other workers arrive, he makes a point to be out on the paint shop floor, talking with his employees and making sure there is enough staff on hand to cover every position. When he’s training newcomers, he’ll assign them to work with an experienced team member, so no one is left on their own.

Williams, who works in the paint shop at BMW, knows what it’s like to make a transition from another industry. For years, Williams worked at a vitamin factory in North Carolina, a short drive from where the BMW plant sits outside Greenville, S.C.

Day in and day out, Williams worked on assembly line where the tablets were measured into rows after rows of square bottles. “It was nothing like this,” she says of the gleaming BMW factory.

At BMW, she confidently takes me on a tour of the paint shop (usually off limits to visitors) where employees are applying the glistening paint that is a hallmark of the German luxury brand. The BMW workers know that their workplace is a subject of curiosity.

“You have a lot of people who come in from out of town, you have a lot of Germans that visit,” she says.

And another German company, Volkswagen, has provided opportunities for three members of the Burton family in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Brothers Mark, 24, and Brian, 28, are taking part in an apprenticeship program that the auto company is sponsoring in order to groom, and eventually hire, its future technicians.

Their father, Mike, is an inspector at VW – “one of half a million people who showed up at the convention center” in Chattanooga to apply for jobs at the plant, he jokes.


Brian had been working at a local bank for nine years, while Mark was a corporate trainer at the Melting Pot restaurant chain. Their father had a background in graphic design. “The opportunities did run out at the bank,” says Brian Burton.

But when he learned of the apprenticeship program, he originally picked up a flyer not for himself, but for his brother, who has always been fascinated by the way things are put together.

Now, all three of them arrive each day at the sprawling VW facility, where over three years, the younger Burtons are being taught all aspects of work at the assembly plant over nine semesters. For four, they’ll be in workshops, for five, on the plant floor. And all they have to do is go outside to see the impact VW has had on Chattanooga.

“Everywhere you go, you see VWs on the road,” Brian Burton says. “It’s a VW town now.”

At Toyota’s engine plant in Huntsville, Alabama, Evona Mayes spends her workday in an area that’s called the “test bench.” She listens to the engines for abnormal sounds, prepares them for shipping, and conducts final inspections.

Like all of the other autoworkers, Mayes also made a transition, from the retail industry. She worked at a nearby Wal-Mart, and actually missed out on the first round of hiring at the plant, which sits a short drive from NASA’s facilities in northern Alabama.

When a cousin called to say Toyota was adding jobs, Mayes applied and was called in to take an assessment test. Although it was supposed to take three hours, she finished it in 90 minutes, and wondered if her speed meant she didn’t have the right qualifications.

She was wrong. A call came, and then a job offer. Now, Mayes has applied to become a team leader, the first step toward climbing up the ladder, as Burkett has done at Hyundai. To her, the Toyota jobs means “not having to worry,” she says. And while there are some ups and downs on the assembly line, Mayes says she doesn’t have second thoughts about exchanging a life in a superstore for her new life.

“I think it was my destiny to be here,” Mayes says.

10 Tips For A Southern Road Trip

On my trip through the new industrial South, I drove more than 4,000 miles, visiting 10 cities and nine factories in 10 days. The scenery ranged from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Gulf Coast, from live oaks to pines. Along the way, I sampled gourmet cuisine and boiled peanuts, gas station cuisine and outstanding fast food. Here are my top 10 tips for planning your Southern road trip.

1) Be ready for weather extremes. Southern heat is muggy and it continues into the fall. The cool air that marks a summer or fall morning in many parts of the country just isn’t there. It starts hot and gets hotter and danker until, crash! there’s an afternoon thunderstorm – or worse. My trip took place just two weeks before Hurricane Isaac, and as the storm hit, I checked the map to see how my towns made out. None of the factories were damaged, but there has been flooding, power outages, and plenty of downed trees. Isaac aside, you might want to front load your driving so you’re off the road by about 4 p.m., just so you won’t have to pull off and wait it out, the way I had to more than a few times. And keep an eye on radar: I was driving between Memphis and Tupelo in May when a thunderstorm rolled in out of nowhere (my flight from Detroit to Memphis had been smooth as silk).

2) Think about staying in a central spot. Since I was visiting the new industrial South, it made sense to use Birmingham, AL, as my home base for several nights during the trip. I took road trips of an hour, two hours, up to four hours from there, but it was nice to unpack once and sleep in the same place a few nights in a row. You might pick Atlanta or Mobile or Nashville, and go off on short trips from either place. Believe me, there’s plenty to see, and it’s nice to have a hotel staff welcome you back at the end of the day.3) Make a list of what you want to eat. The South isn’t just southern food these days – I found a fantastic penne bolognese in Birmingham, and exquisite sushi in Lexington, Kentucky. There is tons of Mexican food all over the south, including The Taco Truck in downtown Birmingham. But for the most part, you’re here and you’re going to want to eat southern food. So make yourself a list: barbecue, fried chicken, shrimp, grits, crab, gumbo, peach cobbler, whatever your heart fancies. Then, find it. And if you discover a restaurant you like, don’t hesitate to go back again. I did that with Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham and the Market By The Bay in Fairhope, Alabama, because I liked both menus so well. Likewise, you might find a fast food chain that appeals to you such as Zaxby’s, Backyard Burger or Krystal. Go ahead and indulge!

4) What do you want to do? Some people visit car plants, the way I did. Others want to see minor league baseball parks. Some folks like the beach, others want to play golf, still more like to shop. The variety is endless. You can plot a route around all those things, just do your research ahead of time. Southern states’ tourism websites are an amazing source of tips and routes. I particularly like 100 Dishes To Eat In Alabama.

5) Prepare for some challenging driving. Along with weather extremes, the South is much more hilly and even mountainous than people expect. Cities like Birmingham and Chattanooga are full of hills. Greenville sits not far from the mountains. Atlanta’s traffic is legendary. This isn’t like driving through the west, where you can put on cruise control and let your mind wander. You’ll have to pay attention.

6) Watch out for daredevil drivers. When I left Greenville for Atlanta, I noticed highway signs imploring motorists to allow more space when passing trucks. They might as well have said, “please don’t cut people off.” It’s startling to have a car pass you and wind up inches from your front bumper. It’s also a little disconcerting when you’re already going the speed limit and someone roars up and tailgates you. In New York City, they honk; in the South, they move.

7) Take time to go off the beaten path. Southern states do an admirable job of pointing out historic attractions; just look for the brown signs along the highways. And keep your eyes open for in-town signs, too. I found the delightful Ty Cobb Museum in Georgia that way, I discovered Hank Williams Sr.’s birthplace, and I discovered the sign for the F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald’s Montgomery, Alabama, home while I was looking for something else. Likewise, you can do a driving tour of sites from The Help near Greenwood, Missouri, and visit the state’s outstanding Blues Trail (there’s even an app). These places exemplify the richness of the Southern road.

8) Go ahead and be a tourist. I’ve been to Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, the Stax Museum of American Soul in Memphis, the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, and the beaches near Mobile. There is a reason why people visit these places: they’re part of American history and culture. Don’t turn up your nose because there are school buses parked outside. You might learn something you forgot from school.

10) You don’t have to give up Starbucks. In fact, I think there may be more Starbuck’s per highway exit across the South than in any other part of the country. There’s a branch of the Christmas Tree Shops in Birmingham, for homesick New Englanders, and college football loyalty is every bit as deep in Tuscaloosa and Auburn as in South Bend and Columbus. (When I showed up in navy, orange and white for a meeting, someone remarked, “You’re wearing your Clemson colors today.” That was news to me.) The South is more like America than the north, Midwest or West suspects – in fact, it is America, writ colorfully and large.

The Southern Road: Traveling Through The New Industrial America

If you’re not from the American South, you probably have an image of it in your head. It might have squealing pickup trucks and Daisy Dukes. Or hoop skirts and cotton plantations from “Gone With The Wind.” Maybe the streetcars of New Orleans, or the twang of Paula Deen.

What if I told you that the American South has become a land of opportunity, where people no longer have to leave home to find their fortunes? What if you knew that more than a third of all the cars sold in the United States are made there? And that its population is no longer just white, black, and Hispanic, but European and Asian?

In August, I traveled 4,000 miles over two weeks across the New Industrial South. I plotted a road trip that took me to all the car and truck plants between Mississippi and South Carolina that have been built in the past two decades. I talked to autoworkers and managers, chefs and mayors, university officials and farmers, wait staff and retirees.

And I came away thinking that people up north have no idea what’s happened below the Mason Dixon line. Thanks to the auto industry, and everything that came with it, the South is full of cities where there’s been growth, where people buy new cars and homes, and send their kids to new schools and to play on new skate parks. Towns have new city halls. Instead of selling the past, economic developers are salivating over a new future.

If you only visit one of these places, say, Birmingham, Alabama, you see some of this, but not all of it. Driving the entire region, however, fills in the picture in a complete way.

Over the next weeks, we’ll be exploring the impact of the South’s new industry in “The Southern Road: Traveling Through The New Industrial South.” We’ll have lots of tips to help you plan your own southern road trip.

Most of all, we’ll provide impressions. And this was my main one.

Traveling the Southern Road made me think this is what it must have been like in Detroit, and Cleveland, and Gary, Indiana, and Pittsburgh for our parents and grandparents. While those cities are striving to write their next chapters, you can go see the story of the new American economy playing out right now, all across the South.

%Gallery-164205%The contrasts are striking, beginning with terrain. My trip began in my hometown, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Once I passed Lexington, Kentucky, en route to Greenville, South Carolina, I found myself driving around sweeping curves and up and down hills. As I crossed Tennessee and North Carolina, I was in mountains. And the geography stayed interesting as the miles clicked up, reminded me quite a bit of New England, only lush and verdant in a different way, with live oaks, moss and pines.

The variety was staggering. If you prefer to stay in luxury hotels and dine at some of the country’s top-rated restaurants, you can do that in Chattanooga, Tennessee, now the home of Volkswagen’s new plant. Or in Birmingham, Alabama, which has Mercedes-Benz just west of town and Honda within an hour’s drive to the east. Downtown Greenville, South Carolina, bustles at night, in no small part due to the BMW plant right by the airport.

Do you want to couple history with your auto town visit? Then head for Montgomery, Alabama. That’s where Hyundai built its first American factory, only 10 minutes from the spot where Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Near Tupelo, Mississippi, there’s a brand new Toyota factory a few exits down from Elvis Presley’s birthplace and the hardware store where he bought his first guitar.

Perhaps you’d like to see what happens to a small southern town when a car plant becomes its neighbor. Canton, Mississippi, fits that bill. So do Lincoln, Alabama, and West Point, Georgia. These towns also have gorgeous lakes and recreational areas only a stone’s throw away.

Many of the plants are open for tours, and the most elaborate, like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and VW, have visitor centers where you can drop in even if you’re not going to see how the cars are built. Several of the plants have gift shops, where you can buy golf balls, shot glasses, T-shirts and picnic baskets. (Too bad Kia’s gift shop isn’t open to the public because it had the cutest souvenirs – the toy hamster and sock monkey that have appeared in its ads.)

Other plants don’t allow the public to visit, but even if you don’t set foot in one of the factories, it’s easy to spot what happens when one of these big auto plants comes to town.

The first thing you might notice is new highway exits, new overpasses and new roads around the plants. They’re often part of the incentives that the states paid to land these factories.

The next thing to look for is development. Fast food restaurants and new hotels are the first signs of growth. But you’ll also see billboards for new subdivisions, and you’ll notice even more in the way of smaller factories – these have been opened by the suppliers to these big car companies. Often, they’re set next to the freeway a few miles down, because they often sell parts to more than one automaker.

What I found on the Southern Road is that the impact of these factories goes a lot deeper than what you can see on the surface. When you have newcomers from Germany and Japan and Korea, their culture comes with them.

That’s why you’ll find the makings for a Japanese breakfast, like miso soup and steamed rice, on the breakfast buffet at the Lexington, Kentucky, Residence Inn. That’s why you can now rent a loft apartment for business entertaining at Soby’s, the popular restaurant in Greenville – because BMW and other European companies wanted a private place for a small group.

To be sure, the South hasn’t become one big Manhattan, and no one would mistake any of these cities for Los Angeles. Southern culture is still widely apparent, from men automatically holding open doors for women, to gas station lunch counters and lots of fast driving. Divert from your Mapquest directions, and you’ll find long stretches of farmland and dusty roads.

But you can stop for Starbuck’s on the way to your plant tour. And you might even wonder, “What would it be like to live here?”

Micheline Maynard is a writer and author based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She previously ran the public media project Changing Gears, and was Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.

Setting Up Your Trip:

These are some of the car companies that have public tours or facilities for visitors.

BMW Zentrum, Greer S.C. (plant tours, customer delivery center, and more). Open Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Call 1-888-TOUR-BMW or

Mercedes-Benz Visitor Center, Vance, AL (museum and plant tours). Museum open daily, tours given Tuesday-Thursday. Call 888-286-8762 or

Volkswagen, Chattanooga, AL. (gift shop and tour) Eight tours a week, Tuesday through Friday at 9 a.m. and 1:30 pm. Inquiries:

Hyundai, Montgomery, AL (visitors center and tour). Tours given Monday, Wednesday, Friday, also a Thursday evening tour. Call 334-387-8019 or

Nissan, Canton, MS (gift shop and plant tour) Tours by reservation. Call 601-855-TOUR.

Honda, Lincoln, AL (plant tour) Tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. By reservation at