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Associated Press
Ford has transformed the Louisville plant into the new home of the redesigned Escape.

Louisville plant upgraded

Ford invests heavily to make new Escape

– Ford has transformed a nearly 60-year-old assembly plant into the new home of the redesigned Escape, its entry in the ultra-competitive small SUV category. And it’s bolstered the workforce to make the vehicle.

Ford Motor Co. invested $600 million to revamp its Louisville Assembly Plant, which features a new body, paint and trim assembly lines. The plant produced Ford Explorers from the early 1990s until late 2010.

On Wednesday, the plant celebrated the launch of the new Escape, which goes on sale this month.

The plant’s hourly workforce will swell to about 4,200 once a third shift is added this fall, the company said. As a spinoff, suppliers are adding more than 900 jobs in support of Escape production, Ford said.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer called it a “generational type of investment” by the automaker.

“It’s a wonderful shot in the arm for our economy,” he said.

Many of the jobs were filled by incumbent Ford workers in Louisville or from places where factories closed or downsized.

But some 18,000 applicants scrambled for about 1,800 new jobs at the plant; those jobs have since been filled.

Once the third shift cranks up, the Louisville plant will rank among the largest workforces at Ford’s domestic assembly plants.

The plant’s wage scale ranges from nearly $16 anhour for new hires to about $28 an hour for the most skilled workers.

That work force had shrunk to about 1,100 when the last Explorers rolled off the assembly line at the Louisville plant in late 2010. Production of that midsize SUV has shifted to a Chicago plant.

Some employees thought they had pulled their last shifts at the Louisville plant when it was idled.

“When we went down, there were a lot of people who didn’t believe we’d ever retool,” said Steven M. Stone, the UAW chairman for the Louisville Assembly Plant.

Now, the remodeled plant is touted as the most flexible in Ford’s domestic assembly chain, capable of producing up to six different models at the same time. It can build small, medium or large vehicles, but Ford officials haven’t discussed any other models for the plant.

“We’re putting that flexibility in for a reason, to take advantage of it in the future,” said Jim Tetreault, Ford’s vice president of North America Manufacturing.