A century ago, Detroit not only transformed the auto industry — it also transformed itself into a beacon for migrants both domestic and foreign.
As auto production grew over the next decades, so did its melting pot of nationalities attracted by good jobs. Detroit is still a gateway for immigrants like Francis Chukwudolue, who came from Nigeria to Wayne State University in 1988, intent on a career in the industry.
But when Chukwudolue got his first job on the assembly line in 1990 like thousands of emigres before him, it wasn’t with a Detroit automaker — it was with Honda. Today, Chukwudolue oversees production of Honda’s innovative, all-new 2018 Odyssey minivan in Lincoln, Alabama, a century after blacks fled the segregated South to work in Detroit factories.
Chukwudolue represents a diverse, sprawling, multi-state U.S. automotive industry that would have been inconceivable in the early 20th century.
He already spoke English when he arrived Detroit as a 21-year-old on a student visa seeking a Wayne State business degree and a path to automotive manufacturing.
“My dad worked for a manufacturing plant in Nigeria, and I was always interested in working on cars myself,” Chukwudolue said in a phone interview from Alabama. “I came to Detroit ... knowing that at some point I could get into the automotive industry. A move to the U.S.A. would improve my opportunities for the future. At that time in Nigeria you lost electricity on a daily basis. It’s a different system — here, everything works.”
Chukwudolue fits the profile of the modern auto immigrant.
The first wave of immigrants came as Detroit boomed in the 1920s, says Tom Klug, professor of history at Marygrove College. “Immigrant labor came from everywhere, reaching into Ontario and Europe,” he said. “Detroit was dependent on a mobile, flexible labor supply. Immigrants would rush to Detroit for work with a plan to return to the old country with their earnings.”
In the early 21st century, immigrants continue to play a part in the industry, but their status is changing as the workplace is transformed by robots and electronics, says Kristin Dziczek, an auto labor expert with the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor: “As the industry demands more tech talent and become more globally integrated, companies draw employees from all over the world.”
Though there is little data tracking the movement of immigrants across the industry, says Dziczek, the industry may sometimes be more narrowly defined as working in “engineering services” rather than “automotive.”
Since Honda opened its first U.S. production plant in Marysville, Ohio, in 1984, foreign automakers including BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Toyota, Hyundai and Subaru have opened “transplant” factories that account for nearly half of total U.S. vehicle production according to IHS Automotive. Meanwhile, domestic manufacturers like Ford have moved beyond Detroit to factories from Missouri to Cleveland to Chicago. In 2016, 13 different companies operated 44 assembly plants in 14 states. Much of the foreign transplant expansion has come in the Southeast.
Chukwudolue works his way up
A couple of months into his first Wayne State semester, Chukwudolue met his future wife while visiting Columbus. He decided to pursue his business degree at Ohio State University.
At her urging, Chukwudolue applied for a job with Honda at its East Liberty, Ohio, plant — just down the road from its original Marysville facility — in 1990. He went to work on the assembly line making Civics, America’s best-selling compact. He rose quickly from the shop floor.
“I started off in seat installation. I always look for ways to make improvements,” he remembers. “One of the things I noticed was that you had to bend over quite a ways to get the seat into the car. So I put in a suggestion to raise the vehicle to minimize the effort to install the seat. Honda is a huge company, but seeing how (I could) have a voice in the process gave me confidence.”
He worked his way up to a supplier representative, coordinating the complex ballet of parts for Marysville’s Accord sedan assembly before joining the new Honda Manufacturing at Lincoln, Alabama, facility at the turn of the century.
Today, the 2,500-employee plant runs two lines making four different vehicles with Chukwudolue’s team responsible for a minivan that sports innovations like horizontally sliding rear “magic seats” and infotainment-embedded smartphone apps. His team is responsible for production from engine to purchasing, production, and quality.
The fabric of ‘who we are as a company’
“Stories like Francis’ make up the fabric of who we are as a company,” says Jeff Tomko, president of Honda Manufacturing of Alabama. “This is the key to creating the best possible products for our customers, while also making a difference in the communities where we live and work.”
That fabric is a weave of immigrants like the Nigerian, Japanese associates from Honda’s Japanese headquarters, U.S.-born employees who have migrated from Honda’s Midwest plants, and locally based labor who applied for jobs when the Japanese automaker expanded operations to the South.
“Getting my U.S. citizenship was a very proud moment for me,” says Chukwudolue, a 50-year-old father of four. “I live in Georgia just across the state line from Alabama and I have a lot of interaction with other Nigerians and people from other countries. There’s a lot of diversity within Honda. Working on this project is the highlight of my career.”
Chukwudolue is aware of America’s rich immigration history — from the European waves of the early 20th century to the late-20th Asian influx.
“The problem I see is people are afraid of things they are unsure of,” he mused. “The more people truly understand it, the more they feel better about it.”
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.