Speeding into the Future

October’s Southern Automotive Conference began with the sound of a revving engine and squealing tires reverberating over the loudspeakers at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex East Exhibit Hall. When Alabama Automotive Manufacturers Association President Ron Davis walked onto the stage moments later, he joked, “I don’t think that was one of our electric cars.”

Actually, much of the noise coming out of the 10th SAC was aimed at the industry’s future, including talks about electric cars, the move toward automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies (dubbed Industry 4.0), and a parade of college students and other millennials who introduced many of the speakers.

“That was done very intentionally, ” Davis says of the emphasis on future technology and the millennial generation. “Because as our industry grows, we have very exciting and interesting jobs for young people in our industry. And to grow and prosper in the state of Alabama and meet the challenges of future technology, it’s very important that we entice young people into our industry to take those upcoming jobs.

“So we wanted the conference to be about where we’re going in this industry. That’s why we were very excited for the face of the event to be heavily loaded with millennials. We wanted people to understand who the future of our industry is and to really showcase that.”

“There is less and less simple stuff in a car and more requirements for technical skills in the manufacturing world, ” says Honda North America Vice President Tom Lake, whose keynote speech was titled, “Challenges and Opportunities for the Future of the Industry.”

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“So first and foremost, we need to show young people that a career in auto manufacturing is not just a good career, but that it’s also fun and exciting. We want to bring them into our factories and give them more than just the normal plant tour — really get them exposed to the manufacturing environment. We want them to experience that, and see how transferable those skills are. Because if you have technical auto manufacturing skills, you can move almost anywhere in this country and be within 30 miles of a significant job.”

Approximately 1, 200 people registered for the conference, which Davis notes was a significant increase over the fewer than 200 attendees at the inaugural SAC. “And we thought that was huge, ” Davis says.


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Attendees could hear talks from representatives of automakers and auto suppliers, as well as educators and professionals involved in workforce and economic development. They also were able to visit more than 100 exhibitors, including a 13-company delegation representing the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO).

“We’ve been collaborating quite a bit with this region, particularly Alabama, ” says Trevin Dye, JETRO assistant director of international business development. “We participated in the Southern Automotive Quality Summit last year, and given how successful our delegation business matching was there, we thought we’d expand it for this conference.

“We wanted to introduce our Japanese companies to people and markets they would not otherwise know about or have access to. It was really successful. We’ve received positive feedback from the exhibitors and the attendees for the business matching.”

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey spoke on the final day of the conference and announced the formation of the Southern Automotive Manufacturers Alliance. The new organization consists of the state automotive manufacturing organizations of Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi (Georgia is an apprentice member), as well as the Southern Automotive Women’s Forum, the South Carolina Automotive Council and the Kentucky Automotive Industry Association.

Ivey says the goal of the new cooperative alliance is to make the entire Southeast region even more attractive to automobile manufacturers. “We can achieve so much more working together than we can working apart, ” Ivey says. “This new effort is an indication of our spirit of cooperation, as well as healthy competition among our states. By joining together, we will enhance each state’s attractiveness to automotive businesses.”

Ivey also announced that the Alabama Community College System, through a partnership with the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council, will begin offering nationally recognized and industry-led credentials at every college this spring. This makes Alabama the first state in the nation to offer the MSSC credentials statewide.

“It is crystal clear that our governor is a very strong supporter of the automotive industry, ” Davis says. “She recognizes the impact the industry has had on our state, as evidenced by the fact she took time out of her busy schedule to speak at the conference.”

The 10-year anniversary SAC was hosted by the Alabama Automotive Manufacturers Association, which contracted with the event division of Business Alabama’s parent company PMT Publishing along with o2 Ideas of Birmingham to plan and implement the conference.

Cary Estes and Joe De Sciose are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.


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