SISSONVILLE, W.Va. -- Nineteen local high school and junior high school teachers visited the NGK Spark Plugs plant in Sissonville on Thursday afternoon.Company officials led them on a tour of their facilities that produce spark plugs and oxygen sensors for cars across the United States and foreign countries.The Charleston Area Alliance's Educator/Industry Institute arranged the tour as part of their program to connect schoolteachers to local industries and help them learn about internships and job opportunities that might be available for their students.Cullen Naumoff, a project manager with the Alliance, said the group's two-week program also included visits to local facilities in the chemical, energy, automotive, health, food and tourism businesses.
Officials from NGK, which is based in Japan, first visited West Virginia in 1989 at the invitation of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. In 1994, company officials decided to build the new facility in Sissonville.Bob Pepper, NGK's senior vice president of manufacturing, said his company produces 27,000 oxygen sensors and more than 60,000 spark plugs every day its plants operate today. (Oxygen sensors detect and regulate gas emissions from car engines through their exhaust systems.)NGK began manufacturing oxygen sensors in Sissonville in 1996 and began making spark plugs in 2008, in a separate facility. NGK also built a large warehouse on its Sissonville campus.Three years ago, NGK closed the factory it operated in Irvine, Calif., moving all U.S. operations to Sissonville."We have 400 full-time workers and 70 temporary workers here today," Pepper said. "In 18 months, we hope to have 450 full-time workers and by 2020, a lot more."Today, NGK Spark Plugs and NTK Technical Ceramics "operate manufacturing facilities in 11 countries. Most are in Asia, but we also have facilities in France, South Africa, the United States and Brazil," Pepper said.The Sissonville plants operate around the clock, with eight-hour shifts from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. and from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.The spark plug plant, filled with workers and rather noisy machines, is busy assembling and packaging hundreds of spark plugs at any given time during the day."By 2016, we will be making 40 million spark plugs a year in this facility. By 2017, we will make 21 million oxygen sensors here," Pepper said."Today, our company makes 750 million spark plugs a year, which is 41 percent of the world market."Pepper believes economic conditions in the United States will help the Sissonville plant continue to grow. The plant has grown continually since it opened back in 1996, with the exception of a brief downturn in the recent recession.
"There is economic uncertainty in Europe, but the NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] market continues to grow."Pepper also said, "The average age of a vehicle on the road today is 11 years -- as long as it has ever been."Recent modifications in union contracts signed by the Big Three auto companies -- Ford, Chrysler and General Motors -- helped the industry, Pepper argued. "They have much lower labor costs for new workers.""We do background checks and drug screens on everyone we hire," Pepper told the teachers. "That has a major impact on hiring. We lose a lot of people up front."Today, our average worker today is in his 30s. We also have a lot of people, who worked here since we opened, that have 17 or 18 years of seniority." Reach Paul J. Nyden at email@example.com or 304-348-5164.