The opportunity to be part of a life changing event for the residents in a small West Tennessee town was one that an alumna of Tennessee Tech University could not pass up. She will be leading operations at the battery plant division in Ford Motor Company’s Blue Oval City currently being built and slated to open in 2025.
Tracy Church, a December 1994 graduate of Tech with what was then an industrial engineering
degree, is no stranger to automotive manufacturing, as she spent over 27 years at
Nissan Motor Corporation. She began as an industrial engineer in 1995, worked her
way up the ranks with Nissan, and had reached the position of vice
president for powertrain operations when she made the move to Ford last summer.
Blue Oval City is an all-new electric vehicle and battery manufacturing campus located in the small rural town of Stanton in Haywood County of West Tennessee, operated by Ford Motor Company and SK Innovation.
Making a difference.
Church had the opportunity to be a part of launching a powertrain plant with Nissan early in her career. She saw first-hand what manufacturing plants can do for small towns and the difference it can make in the lives of those residents. She has witnessed it and been a part of it from the beginning in several cases.
“So that's a big draw, to make the move to Ford is to be part of that on a much larger scale,” Church said. “And then also, Ford coming to Tennessee is a huge deal.”
When Nissan began manufacturing the LEAF, Church was a part of the building the new battery plant in Smyrna, and it was when she “got the bug” about electric vehicles and developed a passion around them.
“So, I've had a couple of opportunities to see that and now to have a chance to be a part of that with another company in another part of the state but still very rural areas,” Church said. “This is going to be a game changer for these communities and people. It changes families.”
Church saw it within Nissan, especially when people were hired into the manufacturing jobs, and they saw engineering opportunities.
“I think they encourage their children, go to school, get an engineering degree, and get a good job. I've seen it change entire families, for multiple generations, with just the opportunities it brings to local areas,” Church said. “So that was another piece of it, to be a part of what manufacturing can do, what kind of jobs it brings to the rural towns and to be a part of that again, in Tennessee, that was another part of the draw.”
Looking to the past.
While Church is looking to the future in Ford’s Blue Oval City, she has not forgotten her past and where she came from. She grew up in Flintville, a small community in Lincoln County in East Tennessee. She learned early on that the manufacturing jobs were the ones people wanted, as they had a higher pay grade and benefits than most other employers.
A speaker came to Church’s Lincoln County High School and presented different materials and talked about engineering in general. She also learned about engineering and manufacturing at different career fairs in high school.
“I decided I wanted to be an engineer. If you live in Tennessee, and you want to be an engineer, you go to Tennessee Tech,” Church said.
The influences that helped create her drive.
When Church began her career at Nissan, there was a strong presence of Tennessee Tech engineers. There were engineers who would get hired from other universities, but the vast majority were Tennessee Tech engineers, according to Church. She said the company saw how well the curriculum aligned with what they wanted in new engineers entering the workforce.
“That's because of the people who came before me. They saw what a Tennessee Tech engineer brings to the table,” Church said. “I still recognize and appreciate that, so every opportunity I've had to see a Tennessee Tech engineering degree on a resume, the instinct has always been to pull that one to the top of the pile because I know the program they've been through.”
Church also credits the co-op program at Tech for setting her on her career path. According to Church, students, especially engineering students, were heavily encouraged to participate in the co-op program.
“I did a co-op program at a manufacturing company back in my area. That's where I think the storyline began for me is gaining an appreciation for manufacturing and how many good paying jobs that it provides to people in small communities,” Church said.
“My co-op experiences were what led me to want to stay in manufacturing and then at the time I was coming out of school, automotive were the sought-after jobs. You either went to Spring Hill or towards Nissan, so that's how I ended up in Nissan.”
When Church was in the industrial engineering program at Tech, several of their class projects were done at the local manufacturing plants in the area. She said it was an integral part of the curriculum at that time, and it “stuck for me and really influenced my career choices.”
Church’s move from high school to college life was straightforward, she felt like the campus was a community and it was one that she felt comfortable in from the start. The hometown atmosphere of Cookeville aligned well with her upbringing.
“From growing up in a small town, it was an easy transition into the Tennessee Tech community. I found the engineering program of courses top notch, and it had the resources that you needed to be able to choose which engineering discipline you wanted to go into,” Church said. “All that was just laid out so well, and it was just a really smooth process for me.”
Focusing on the future.
Church knows that leading the battery plant at Blue Oval City will require a strong capable workforce who can help steer the company in the forward direction of electric vehicles and their components. She plans on recruiting the best for her team.
“I've certainly put the plug out there a few times already with the workforce development team about Tennessee Tech and what a strong engineering resource it is within the state,” Church said. “I look forward to the potential in the future to have that kind of partnership.”
Blue Oval City is a $5.6 billion investment and will be home to the next-generation electric truck from Ford and will produce batteries for future Ford and Lincoln vehicles. The six square mile site will be among the largest auto manufacturing facilities in U.S. history. It will feature vehicle assembly, battery production and a supplier park.
Ford will employ approximately 6,000 people between the electric vehicle manufacturing facility and battery manufacturing facility.