Big League Workforce Demands

More than 850, 000 automobiles were manufactured in Alabama in 2012, another record for an industry that has experienced amazing growth since it first entered the state in 1993. While many economic sectors have declined during the past few years, demand for Alabama-made vehicles has steadily increased, creating an ongoing need for highly qualified workers to build those vehicles.

While a demand for more workers is good news to economic development professionals, the need for more automotive workers is a mixed blessing.

“These automotive plants need to exponentially increase the number of qualified technical workers within the plants to keep three shifts running in order to meet consumer demand, ” says Lew Drummond, executive director of the Alabama Automotive Manufacturers Association and director of the West Alabama Center for Workforce Development at Shelton State Community College. “But they don’t just need average mechanics. These workers must be highly trained in robotics and computer processing in order to do these jobs well.”

And professionals with those skill sets have not been easy to find. For instance, Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama, located in Montgomery, opened up the application process in May 2012 to fill nearly 900 new positions needed for third shift. “But we’ve had a lot of difficulty finding skilled maintenance technicians, ” says Robert Burns, senior manager for public relations and sales at the plant. “The third shift began operating in September, but we are still looking for people to fill those jobs.”

Automotive manufacturing isn’t the only industry that now requires more highly skilled workers than it did just a few years ago, says Bill Taylor, president of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama (EDPA). “We have a significant manufacturing base in Alabama now, and the majority of it falls under the umbrella of advanced manufacturing, ” he says. “That means a variety of skill sets are needed to manage the complexity.”

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Those necessary skill sets certainly include technical skills and an understanding of the operating parameters of various pieces of equipment, Taylor says. But manufacturers also need workers who are skilled at problem solving, making presentations and analysis. “When you do have a problem, can you communicate what that problem is?” Taylor says. “Communication and social skills are very important.”

Cassandra Collins assembles a door on the assembly line at Hyundai's Montgomery plant. 

In addition to more advanced manufacturing techniques, another result of the Great Recession has been the expectation for employees to multi-task. Factories that became accustomed to functioning with skeleton crews learned that the most valuable workers were those willing to take on extra work as needed. “During the recent recession, jobs changed, ” Taylor says. “In most businesses, people had two or three hats on their heads. You were no longer just operating a piece of equipment, but you were also maintaining it. Businesses shrank and jobs changed because the same work had to get done. There were lots of people who were laid off during the recession, and, six months later, they were no longer qualified to do the jobs they left.”

For instance, Hyundai now looks specifically for individuals with a variety of skills, according to Burns. “We may want a maintenance person who not only can do general maintenance but also has the aptitude to pick up on programmable logic controllers, ” he says. “And it would be a bonus if they have basic electrical skills as well. We really need a multi-skilled set, not just a mechanic.”

Professionals across the automotive industry generally agree that education is the key to solving their workforce problems. More than ever before, manufacturers are building relationships with education providers to ensure that needs will be met today and into the future.

EDPA is currently working in 35 different Alabama communities to build existing industry or bring in new industry, and, in every case, representatives from the education community are involved in the solution. “Education has to be at the table, ” Taylor says. “Business needs change constantly. Because it’s always an evolving topic, industry needs to have constant communication with education to keep them informed.” While Alabama educators and industry representatives are more aligned than ever before, “We still need to improve that alignment greatly, ” Taylor adds.

Some strides have been made. Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama has close relationships with Wallace Community College and Trenholm Technical College. Students who are interested in automotive careers are encouraged to consider maintenance technology and provided with opportunities to visit the Hyundai plant or talk with current workers.

Kenny Reeves, right, and Veronica White on the assembly line at Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama. Effective communication on the line is one of the highest skills required of workers. 

Through a partnership with Mercedes-Benz U.S. International in Vance, Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa offers an industrial mechatronics training program, in which students attend classes four days per week and work in an automotive plant one day each week. Those who complete the program earn an associate of applied science degree in industrial electronics and a certificate in industrial maintenance. Students finishing in the top 75 percent of each graduating class are awarded full-time positions in production at the Mercedes plant.

With programs like this one, “Industry representatives are working with colleges to make sure the curriculum is fine tuned to provide manufacturers with individuals who have the people skills and the technical skills they need, ” Drummond says. Markus Schaefer, president of Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, helped craft the new curriculum for Shelton State’s mechatronics program, notes Drummond.

In addition to working with college-level programs, automotive industry professionals also are supporting efforts for high school students to begin training for automotive careers. The Montgomery Public Schools have seven different career academy tracks, which allow students to choose a career path as rising ninth graders and to take vocational tech classes each year to prepare for that career. One of the tracks is the Advanced Manufacturing Career Academy, and two Hyundai representatives serve on the committee that directs curriculum development for that Academy. “The program just started two years ago, but we hope it will be another avenue to train workers and get them interested in an automotive career, ” Burns says. “This program will prepare them to move on to technical college, but we want them to have those baseline skills first.”

While finding qualified workers to meet the demands of Alabama automotive plants has been a challenge, it’s generally considered to be a problem worth having. It has necessitated collaboration between education and industry, which is an important part of Advance Alabama, a statewide economic development strategy and plan developed by EDPA.

“This is a great opportunity that is affording us a chance to bring business and education together and seize the need, ” says EDPA’s Taylor. “It’s an interesting time in the economy. We have enjoyed success as a state, and I expect we will continue. Education and industry are better aligned today, and if we continue to stay focused on this, we will continue to move forward. It’s a long-term thing, and we need to stick with it. We’re stronger when education and industry can work together.” 

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.

Nancy Mann Jackson

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