GREENVILLE -- ZF Group, a longtime BMW supplier, planted a giant footprint in Laurens County on Thursday with an economic development announcement on the scale of Michelin, BMW and ICAR: a $350 million automatic transmissions plant just over the Greenville County line that would employ 900 workers by 2015.

Industry experts told The Greenville News it significantly extends the reach of the Upstate's growing automotive cluster with a plant that would supply automakers in the Southeast and beyond with such a heavy-duty component while paying among the highest wages in the industry.

Greenville attorney Jimmie Stewart, whose clients include automakers and parts suppliers, said it was "great news for the Upstate with wonderful jobs that shows we have an intelligent and very efficient work force."

Jobs in transmission facilities are highly skilled, both for machinists and maintenance and repair technicians, auto industry analyst John McElroy said. "These jobs generally pay better than assembly plant jobs."

Salaries for automotive plant employees can exceed twice the average earnings for workers in other jobs and offset pressure to form labor unions, said Sujit M. CanagaRetna, senior fiscal analyst with the Council of State Governments in Atlanta, Ga.

The company said it expects to begin hiring early in 2012.

ZF Group, a German industrial giant, already has an Upstate plant in Duncan that assembles front and rear axle systems for BMW. It will locate its transmissions plant in Owings Industrial Park near Gray Court.

The new facility will produce fuel-efficient automatic transmissions for the passenger car and light truck market, according to the announcement from the company and the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce.

Gerhard Wagner, who runs ZF's Car Driveline Division, said emphasis on fuel economy is creating demand. "We believe this production facility could serve as a key driver of this growth," he said.

The news is a boost for the state as well as Laurens County, said McElroy. The decision "would suggest that South Carolina is now a proven entity. It's known."

CanagaRetna, senior fiscal analyst with the Council of State Governments, said that despite grim economic news recently, the automotive industry is among "the green shoots of growth" for the region.

"You could really, strongly make the case that this is where the action is, this is where the automotive industry appears to be flourishing," he said.

Encouraging developments, he said, include Nissan's $2 billion plant in Tennessee to build Leaf electric cars, Toyota's $1.3 billion compact-car facility in Mississippi that will generate 2,000 direct jobs, Kia's plant in western Georgia that will lead to 3,000 jobs, and Volkswagen's U.S. automotive production facility in Chattanooga, Tenn.

He said the region has gained not only in traditional manufacturing but also other areas, such as hybrid-car research.

"The fact that we have this whole cluster of automotive companies and parts suppliers in a fairly tightly knit area allows for all kinds of economies of scale to come about," CanagaRetna said. "That, I think, is a major factor."

The South is attractive for automakers because the region offers opportunities to establish "ground-up operations," or start from the beginning and build plants with the latest technology, he said.

Construction on the ZF plant could begin in January. Hiring for skilled positions that include CNC operators, assemblers, production and logistics, is expected to begin in 2012.

ZF is a global automotive supplier for driveline and chassis technology, with 123 production locations in 27 countries and facilities in Alabama, Illinois, Florida, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Washington and Wisconsin. In 2009, the ZF Group reported sales of approximately $9.4 billion with 60,000 employees.

Gov. Mark Sanford announced ZF's expansion plans following a meeting Thursday with company's executives in Friedrichshafen, Germany, calling it "the largest single infusion of jobs in the history of Laurens County."

The jobless rate for Laurens County was 11.5 percent in June, a tie for 26th among the state's 46 counties.

Laurens County Council Chairman James Coleman said the county is "starved" for the kind of good news that came from ZF Group.

"We've had a lot of plant closures over the last five to 10 years. This shows that we're turning the corner and there will be a lot of opportunities in the future."

Hank Hyatt, vice president of economic development for the Greater Greenville Chamber of Commerce, said the announcement is "fantastic news," for a lot of counties.

High-skill jobs are the type the Upstate needs to attract, he said. "The labor draw is Greenville, Laurens and Anderson."

ZF jobs

The state's worker training program, readySC, will assist ZF in the hiring for their Laurens County plant. Information will be posted at www.sctechjobs.com.