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Columbia Business Monthly

The largest tire in the world is built at Michelin's Midlands plant

By David Dykes

The French-born corporate mascot Bibendum—better known to Americans as The Michelin Man—has quite a home in Lexington County, where two of his company’s major North American manufacturing plants are located. 

From modest passenger radials to giant earthmoving tires, standing 13 feet, 5 inches, with a rim size of 63 inches, weighing 5.4 metric tons and containing enough rubber for 500 car tires, Michelin’s two Lexington facilities are an integral part of the company’s dedication to better mobility for everyone. 

Since 1998, Michelin has built the world's largest tire at its facility in the Midlands, using a mountain of steel, rubber, and textile cord. Company officials say it is designed to carry a 400 short-ton payload and is part of Michelin's big-tire family for heavy-equipment manufacturers and mining companies.

The 1 million-square-foot plant employs nearly 800 employees, working 355 days a year to produce tires in multiple tread patterns with various compounds and in different sizes.

Tires produced here are sent all over the world, including China, Australia, Indonesia, Western Europe, and South America.

Established in 1981, Michelin's passenger plant produces tires for family sedans, minivans, and luxury touring and high performance cars. The plant occupies 1.2 million square feet and employs approximately 1,600 people. 

Yet, Lexington County is where not only production occurs, it’s also where a highly successful college-corporate partnership, the Technical Scholars Program, continues to fill the talent pipeline Michelin will need to expand its operations. It is one of Michelin’s workforce development initiatives, which company officials see as vital in the midst of a competitive job market that challenges many employers in South Carolina.

The program partners with Midlands Technical College to offer full scholarships to electronic engineering technology and general technology students. Michelin provides students with free tuition, fees, and books while they complete a skilled technical program; 20 hours of work per week in a Michelin facility; and eligibility for entry-level employment upon graduation, with salary projections estimated at $56,000 or higher. 

Students from Lexington County-area high schools in May donned Michelin ball caps and signed “contracts” to join Midlands Technical College and Michelin as Michelin Technical Scholars. The local students were from Chapin, White Knoll, Lexington, and River Bluff high schools, as well as the Midlands Middle College. They will enroll this fall in either MTC’s Electronics Engineering Technology or General Technology (Mechatronics) programs. Both programs offer two-year associate degrees that prepare students to work in highly automated manufacturing environments. The students will reinforce their classroom knowledge by working part-time in a Michelin manufacturing facility while in college.

After earning their degrees from MTC, the students will be strong candidates for full-time positions at Michelin with opportunities for career growth. 

MTC and Michelin also are exploring ways to expand the number of students entering the program, as well as looking at more MTC programs that could supply Michelin with a future pipeline of technically trained employees.

“This is an extraordinary opportunity,” Midlands Tech President Ronald L. Rhames says of the partnership with Michelin. 

Michael Williams, facility personnel manager at Greenville-based Michelin North America, says the education MTC students receive puts them in good position to move up the Michelin employment ladder.

“Many of the students who have come through this program are now advancing through our organization,” Williams says. “As managers, they are leading major projects for the organization. These scholars starting today are just at the beginning of an entire career.” 

Michelin North America employs about 22,700 workers and operates 19 major manufacturing plants. The company has about 10,000 employees in South Carolina.

Lexington County in April had the state’s second-lowest unemployment rate at 2.5 percent, trailing only Charleston County at 2.4 percent. Richland County’s rate was 2.9 percent. Statewide, unemployment was 3.4 percent.

Michelin is one of Lexington County’s top private sector employers and a tight job market puts pressure on the company to maintain its production workforce, as it does for all of the state’s manufacturers. 

But Williams is confident in Michelin’s recruiting process and the company’s work with MTC and readySC, one of the oldest and most experienced workforce training programs in the United States and an integral part of the S.C. Technical College System.

“We’re hiring on a consistent basis,” he says.