There was no shortage of celebration and spectacle when Alstom, a French provider of equipment and services for the power generation industry, opened the doors to its newest, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Chattanooga, Tenn. on June 24.
Amid a large contingent of industrial, political and civic leaders, the governor of the state, Phil Bredesen, gave a moving speech of the significance of the Alstoms $280 million local investment. Yet for all that attention, the plant will be hiring only 350 workers.
But lost in that modest number of job creation is the seed for what city and state officials believe is the start of a broader shift of advanced manufacturing jobs to the region.
"When people talk about Tennessee and the need to focus on advanced manufacturing, this is an example of what were trying to achieve," says Gov. Bredesen.
The Alstom plant will produce steam turbines, gas turbines, turbogenerator components and moisture separator reheaters for nuclear, coal and gas power plants. Operations will include welding, machining, assembly and balance testing of some of the largest turbines in the world. The first turbines will ship within a year.
Yet according to local officials, the significance of Alstoms facility has been largely lost on the public. By comparison, when Volkswagen opened a 2-billion-square-foot, $1 billion plant nearby, which will employ 2,000 manufacturing workers, it received far more attention.
"The product made here [turbines] is not easy to grasp and people aren't going to make a lot of noise about it," says Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield. "It's not a commercial product. But the potential of this is tremendous. It will demand engineers and will lead to between, at minimum, four or five indirect jobs. Alstom, over time, has the potential of being a bigger deal than Volkswagen."
Part of that is a reflection of the region's proximity. For instance, Chattanooga runs along the Tennessee River, which provides access to 16,000 miles of navigable waterways, and sits at the center of 18 nuclear license application sites.
"I'm a techie at heart," says Gov. Bredesen. "[The future of Tennessee] lies in creating knowledge-base jobs, the kind of jobs that can't move offshore. The task of my job is to find these anchors, find these businesses that are likely to prosper in the future, that have high valued-added jobs that are well-paying, the kind that wont go away."