By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Welcoming new neighbors
Korean families coming to area with Hyundai
Nichole Buchanan/Staff Army Lt. Col. Joanne Charbonneau speaks to Effingham County residents about what to expect when Hyundai workers begin coming into the area.

A majority of the 8,100 people projected to work at Hyundai Motor Group Metaplant America and the over 5,000 expected for its supplier industries will be Americans, officials say. But they expect teams of key personnel from South Korea to rotate into Effingham, Bryan, Chatham and Bulloch counties, most staying only a few years, for decades to come.

With that in mind, World Trade Center Savannah, the Savannah Harbor-Interstate 16 Corridor Joint Development Authority and development agencies in the four JDA member counties brought Jeanne Charbonneau, who served for 17 years as a consultant to the city of Montgomery, Alabama, on the needs of Korean families, to speak to community and business leaders last week.

Montgomery is home to Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama, a factory that opened in 2003. Charbonneau – a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who previously served in Korea – worked with Korea-based industries’ team members and their families under contract to her city from 2002 to 2019. The Alabama plant, which was established to build gasoline-powered vehicles but had an electric vehicle line added last year, employs a few more than 3,000 people, making it 40% the size of the EV and battery plant now under construction at JDA Mega Site in northern Bryan County.

On Jan. 18, Charbonneau greeted 100 or so Rincon-area people in the Effingham County College and Career Academy.

Through the week, Charbonneau had given similar presentations for gatherings of community and business leaders in Savannah and Pooler in Chatham County, Pembroke and Richmond Hill in Bryan County and Statesboro in Bulloch County.

Help settling in

Based on her experience in Montgomery, the Korean workers – who Charbonneau said are always referred to as team members rather than employees – and their families will need some help settling in and adjusting to differences between their home country and the United States in things such as housing, schools and medical care.

“There will be waves of Korean families that come in, many, many waves over decades, and it turns out that they leave and they don’t stay around for their replacement to get in, so they’re not in a position to help each other get the settling done, and so it’s an investment that our community decided was very definitely worth it,” she said.

Maybe 1,000

Charbonneau said there will be probably 100 to 120 Korean nationals as long-term team members at the main Hyundai plant, out of its workforce of 8,100. But with various “surges over time” and “overlapping crews,” from construction through production, there could be 300 Korean nationals and their families, she said.

She noted that this isn’t counting supplier industries, which are expected to boost the total anticipated jobs to about 14,000.  

“When everything is operational, I would expect that you’re going to have probably 1,000 or 1,200 (Korean) families here, across the four counties,” she said.

Two Hyundai suppliers have announced plans to build factories in Bulloch County: Joon Georgia, established by Ajin USA and expected to employ, eventually, 630  people, and SECO Ecoplastic, expected to create 456 jobs.

Housing needs

When Charbonneau asked how many real estate agents or property managers were in attendance, a few raised their hands.

“Realtors, I hate to disappoint you. The Koreans will not be buying. The Koreans rent,” Charbonneau said. “They’re not allowed to buy.”

This, like many of her observations, was a generalization, which she acknowledged has exceptions.

“A couple of them with resources of their own at home or through families may recruit you for trying to buy property,” she suggested to the real estate agents. “But they get a housing allowance just like military people get, being here.”

The allowance is based on the team member’s position in the company, she said. Many of the Koreans will come from cities where they live in high-rise apartments.

“But when they come to America, they want a single-family home, and that is probably the only time in their lives and careers that they will  be able to have a single-family home,” Charbonneau said.

However, they are not interested in maintaining a lawn or owning a lawn mower, she said. So in Montgomery, lawn maintenance and pest control services were built into contracts for rental homes and covered by the housing allowances.

Setting up utility accounts can also be a challenge for the new arrivals, so utility companies can help by making information and applications available in Korean.

Students’ needs

Korean students, even by third or fourth grade, are often a year or two ahead of American classmates, especially in math and science, she noted. But their English skills usually are not good enough for them to keep pace in U.S. schools without falling behind before they return to the South Korean system.

So in Montgomery she helped establish a Saturday school “by Koreans, for Koreans” that provided additional instruction in math and science in the Korean language, plus English skills enrichment.

Churches helped by opening preschool programs to Korean students, but Korean mothers do not want “all Korean-kid” preschool classes, Charbonneau said.

“The moms really want their little ones in English-speaking preschools because that immersion, and they younger they are, the kids pick up the language skills, like that,” she said, “and by the time they are enrolled in kindergarten or first grade, you know, they are translating for mom sometimes.”

The Korean women often have advanced professional degrees but when their children are born leave the workforce and devote themselves to maintaining their homes and attending to their children’s education, Charbonneau said.

Other topics she talked about, beyond the scope of this story, included differences in the Korean and American culture, customs and manners.