Volvo Cars has started producing prototypes of its new S60 sedan in Berkeley County, to prepare for full production by the end of the year.
Those test cars will never make it to market; rather, they help new hires learn how to make the vehicles ahead of having to produce them in real time. The automaker remains on track to produce the first S.C.-built S60 in the fourth quarter.
“We’re building some of our test, try-out cars now,” said Stephanie Mangini, Volvo Car USA’s corporate communications manager in S.C. “It’s a very small volume, but it’s an opportunity to teach our folks how to build this car and make sure our equipment is doing what it needs to do.”
The vehicles made in Berkeley County will be for North American and overseas consumption.
The start of production will mark the Sweden-based, Chinese-owned company’s foray into U.S. car production. It also signifies the automaker working toward its promise in May 2015 to build an automotive plant in South Carolina and hire more than 2,000 people to produce the vehicles.
The company announced plans in September to further expand its S.C. operation — still more than a year ahead of the campus opening.
Volvo plans to make a second vehicle at the site — the new XC90 SUV model — about three years after the first S60 rolls off production lines, prompting the company to double its workforce and investment by 2021, for a total of 4,000 employees and $1 billion invested.
Volvo officials said the impetus to open the Lowcountry plant was to boost demand from U.S. customers and to assume more market share in years to come.
“The continued expansion of our plant in South Carolina is another significant commitment to the U.S. market,” said Hakan Samuelsson, Volvo Cars’ president and chief executive, in a statement. “The plant in Charleston will serve both the U.S. and international markets and forms a strong foundation for our future growth in the U.S. and globally.”
Volvo’s new site sits a few miles off Interstate 26 along exit 187 near Ridgeville and Pringletown. The automotive campus’s mostly white buildings, expansive parking lots and freshly paved roads sit in an open stretch of land surrounded by woods. The operation covers about 1,600 acres within the Camp Hall Commerce Park.
The body, paint, final assembly and office buildings are nearly complete as construction heads into the home stretch. Remaining work on the facilities and ongoing equipment installation continues. A new interchange from Interstate 26 to the site is also under construction, set to open in 2019.
Volvo’s focus for the year is testing its equipment, processes and workforce to ensure a smooth production start, Mangini said.
Volvo has already hired about 500 employees in production, maintenance and office roles. The company needs to hire and train at least 1,000 more people this year, mostly for production, maintenance and technology positions, which remain the hardest to fill.
“The challenge I think is really getting 1,000 people trained, getting the workforce brought in and trained to build this car,” Mangini said of the S60. “All hands are going to be on deck to ensure we have the right talent in place and the right training processes in place to ensure we can build this car.”
The automaker competes for workers with other automotive suppliers, repair shops and manufacturers in the Lowcountry, including Mercedes-Benz Vans, which is simultaneously ramping up for an expansion of its van manufacturing operation in Ladson. Mercedes-Benz plans to hire 1,300 people by 2020.
The company sent a batch of new hires to facilities in Sweden to train in Volvo’s longtime manufacturing facilities; those employees will now help train other new hires in South Carolina.
New hires also receive training from ReadySC — a division of the S.C. Technical College System that trains employees for companies — in the former American LaFrance building in Jedburg and at ReadySC’s Sumter location. Those classes will relocate in the spring when Volvo’s on-site training facility opens.
The starting wage for Volvo production workers is $17 an hour, and the hiring process can take up to three months. Applicants need a high school diploma or GED equivalent, a WorkKeys certification and one year of manufacturing experience.
Volvo worked with Berkeley County, Trident Technical College, the S.C. Department of Commerce and other educators to create a lean manufacturing certificate for applicants lacking manufacturing experience. Those applicants can take 62 hours of coursework and earn a certificate instead, helping to fill the local workforce pipeline.
The certificate is offered at Trident Technical College and Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College.
“In this area, we recognized that not everyone will have that manufacturing experience, so we got together ... and said, ‘What do we need to do to make job opportunities more available for local residents?’”
Berkeley County paid for interested residents to take the course, and around 150 people did so.
“We want to get everything lined up before we get into the fourth quarter because that’s when we start building the S60s for distribution,” Mangini said.
This story originally appeared in the March 5, 2018, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.