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2 years ago

Alabama auto industry drives into new era with brainpower jobs, deeper skills

honda-feature

As Alabama’s auto industry has grown over the past two decades, so have the jobs and the sophisticated skill sets required to keep production humming.

The majority of the positions at the state’s three auto assembly plants are in production, but the automakers have also built up their ranks of other highly-skilled professionals.

At Honda Manufacturing of Alabama in Talladega County, for instance, there are about 700 engineering professionals in a wide variety of disciplines including electrical, mechanical and civil. The number of positions has increased proportionately to the number of products Honda Alabama is now building.

“When we first started production, we were a new plant, building one product, the Odyssey minivan, and one variation of the 3.5 liter V-6 engine. And because we were a new plant, much of our engineering expertise came from our experienced plants in Ohio, Canada and Japan,” Honda Alabama Vice President Mike Oatridge said.

Honda invested more than $71 million to open a new, highly automated engine assembly line at its Alabama facility.
Honda invested more than $71 million to open a new, highly automated engine assembly line at its Alabama facility.

But since Honda Alabama began producing vehicles 15 years ago, it has become the primary source of light truck production for the automaker and is now the exclusive supplier of the Odyssey, the Pilot SUV, the Ridgeline pickup and the Acura MDX luxury SUV.

Along with the volume increase, the technology has grown more advanced as well.

“The V-6 engine that we first started building has become more complex with the introduction of direct fuel injection, a technology that was in its infancy when we first started,” Oatridge said.

“In fact, almost all of our vehicles now have advanced technology as standard equipment – features such as side curtain airbags, back-up cameras and Bluetooth connectivity.”

Meanwhile, in the past three years, the plant’s workforce has executed four new model changes, an unprecedented schedule among Honda plants.

“So, with all those new models, along with new technology and advanced safety features, we have seen the skills to develop, build and test our vehicles become just as advanced. And that’s why our engineering requirements have continued to expand,” Oatridge said.

GROWING TECHNICAL SKILLS

Steve Sewell, executive vice president of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, said there’s been a huge shift across Alabama’s auto industry when it comes to technology, and it’s affected everyone from line workers to those in other positions at the plants.

When Mercedes-Benz kicked off the state’s auto sector in the 1990’s, there was very little automation. But that changed quickly as it took over the global auto industry and other advanced manufacturing operations.

 The Alabama Robotics Technology Park near Decatur is a training resource for Alabama's automakers. Robotics Technology Park

The Alabama Robotics Technology Park near Decatur is a training resource for Alabama’s automakers.
Robotics Technology Park

These days, automakers are recruiting for highly technical, skilled positions.

“Automation in technology really changed the definition of an automotive worker in this state and what’s needed for that,” Sewell said. “There’s a high demand for robotics technology, for example, and it’s extremely important for us to be able to deliver that workforce training.”

Among Alabama’s assets in this area are the Robotics Technology Park, a complex that is a collaboration among worker training agency AIDT, Calhoun Community College and the world’s leading robotics companies.

Others include Mercedes’ partnerships with Shelton State Community College in mechatronics and automotive technician training programs. Auburn University’s College of Engineering also supports local manufacturing operations through various programs.

“The partnerships with the universities is something we began to talk about 20 years ago, and now that’s something that’s in place and extremely important to these companies,” Sewell said.

PRODUCTION COMPLEXITY

At Honda Alabama, as the technology of the plant’s products has increased, so has the complexity of the production process, Oatridge said. The tools, equipment and machinery are much more advanced than they were in the beginning.

Currently, the plant has about 250 maintenance technicians and expects to hire about 20 per year for the next several years.

“We still have a great need for associates who are mechanically inclined. But along with mechanical training, there is also a demand for electronics expertise,” Oatridge said.

Mike Oatridge is vice president at Honda Alabama.
Mike Oatridge is vice president at Honda Alabama.

“For example, about two years ago, we invested in an advanced servo-motor stamping press, to complement our two existing hydraulic stamping presses. The operation of the servo-motor press required additional training for those in the stamping process and a whole new skill set for our associates who must maintain and service it.”

Honda Alabama is working with several two-year colleges and school-to-work programs to fill the jobs and also has a workforce development program that reaches out to high schools, colleges and the general public, with public demonstrations that show off typical tasks at the plant.

Last spring, Honda Alabama hosted a workforce event during the Honda Indy races at Birmingham’s Barber Motorsports Park.

Since its startup 15 years ago, Honda Alabama has been in a near-constant state of growth, Oatridge said.

“The automotive industry offers a wide variety of both skilled and professional work disciplines,” he said. “Our facility in Lincoln is almost a microcosm of a small city. Along with our engineers, we have professionals in information technology, accounting, logistics, purchasing, process design, human resources, business management … the list just goes on and on.”

Honda workers celebrate the production of the 4 millionth Alabama-made vehicle. (Image: Honda)
Honda workers celebrate the production of the 4 millionth Alabama-made vehicle. (Image: Honda)
7 mins ago

Stray dog finds love and comfort at Alabama Power plant

When a stray dog wandered onto the property at Alabama Power’s Plant Greene County a dozen years ago, workers there had no idea how she would end up touching them all.

They also had no idea the dog was pregnant.

The latter became apparent when she had five puppies a few days later. The former has been firmly established by those who have come to love the dog they call Pup-Pup.

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Initially, they cared for the dog expecting she would find her way back home. It was soon apparent that Pup-Pup was home.

“Little did she know she went from hell to heaven when she showed up here,” said Christopher “Critter” Glass, mechanic-welder at the plant, who gave Pup-Pup her name.

Stray dog Pup-Pup finds loving family at Alabama Power plant from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Pup-Pup’s five puppies were given to contractors and employees. Employees donated to have her fixed and she has been a fixture at the plant ever since.

“An all call will go out and everyone here pitches in for anything she needs, whether it’s food, medicine or a new bed,” said Elaine Fetzer, financial specialist at Plant Greene County.

Recently, Pup-Pup was diagnosed with kidney failure and is no longer able to stay at the plant overnight. Fetzer, who once wanted to be a veterinarian, has tapped into that calling in caring for Pup-Pup away from the plant. She takes Pup-Pup home at the end of the workday and dispenses her medicine twice a day.

“Pup-Pup’s never missed a day until all of this went down (kidney failure), so she’s taking a few vacation days, but she has earned it,” Fetzer said. “Now she is getting her weekends and holidays.”

Even before Pup-Pup’s current health problems, she has had challenges. A vet visit after she was hit by a car revealed she had been shot before her days at the plant. She has always been skittish around flashlights and flashes, possibly because she may have been shot at night when someone shined a light on her.

But at Plant Greene County, Pup-Pup gives and receives love.

The outpouring of love is tinged with sadness as her plant family fears Pup-Pup is facing her final days.

As Plant Greene County Mechanic Chris Cameron put it: “Pup-Pup’s been a great dog, never seen a dog as mighty as her.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 hours ago

Birmingham Iron football team finishes first week of training camp, holds joint practice

The Birmingham Iron has finished its first week of training camp in San Antonio, ending with a joint practice with the Salt Lake Stallions.

Birmingham’s Alliance of American Football team is using the camp to whittle its roster down from the 85 original players to the 52 that will take the field against the Memphis Express at 1 p.m. on Feb. 10 at Legion Field to kick off the inaugural season for the team and the new league.

The Iron released interviews with two players expected to make the final roster – running back Trent Richardson and quarterback Luis Perez.

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Update from Birmingham Iron training camp from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Richardson said the practice with the Stallions showed the progress the Iron is making as a team.

“It shows that we got something special,” the former University of Alabama and NFL running back said. “It shows that both sides still need a lot of work. But we did a lot of great things out there. We showed that team chemistry, too.”

Perez agreed that they are building something with this team.

“As a team, I think we’re doing a very good job,” he said. “We’re stacking those blocks, getting better every single day. Not making the same mistake twice is the end goal. Just getting better, installing all these plays and studying them. Right now we’re all in a learning phase, and I think we’re doing a good job.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 hours ago

Alabama WFF Ramps Up CWD Sampling Effort

With positive tests for chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Tennessee and additional positives in Mississippi, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division has ramped up testing in north Alabama.

WFF officials set up manned sampling stations in Hackleburg the first weekend of the new year and followed with sampling last weekend in Waterloo.

Self-service sampling stations were recently set up by WFF in north Alabama to accommodate drop-offs 24 hours a day.

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WFF Director Chuck Sykes said testing for the always-fatal disease, which is caused by a rogue protein called a prion, has been ongoing since 2002, but the positive tests in neighboring states caused WFF to increase its sampling effort.

“The Mississippi positives made us test more in the areas that joined Mississippi,” Sykes said. “When the deer in Tennessee tested positive, it prompted an increased level of testing where it fell within the response zone. Those positives just prompted us to increase our surveillance in those areas.”

Sixteen deer were brought in for sampling at the Hackleburg station, but Sykes said the interaction with hunters who didn’t harvest deer may have been the most productive aspect of the manned sampling station.

“We didn’t know what to expect, but I consider it a success for a volunteer check station,” Sykes said. “More important than the 16 deer brought in, we had two times that many hunters stop by and ask questions. It was a really good way for our staff to get in front of the public, and the public to be able to ask questions one-on-one.”

Sykes and the WFF staff discovered that, although the Division has been immersed in the CWD Response Plan, it has yet to be widely discussed in the public.

“We (WFF) are up to our eyeballs in CWD,” Sykes said. “Even though we’ve offered seminars, done articles and put up billboards, a lot of people don’t pay attention until it hits close to home. A lot of the questions were just basic CWD knowledge that the average hunter in Alabama doesn’t understand. What is it? Why is it a problem? What makes it different from other diseases? These were very positive interactions. There was nothing negative about it.”

Sykes said the self-service sampling stations are part of the standard protocols of the CWD Response Plan (https://www.outdooralabama.com/deer-hunting-alabama/chronic-wasting-disease-what-you-should-know).

“With the positives in Mississippi and Tennessee within 50 miles of our border, that prompts us to do more testing in those areas,” he said. “It’s been shown time and time again that hunter-harvested deer and road-kills are the best ways to achieve samples and to get the most out of those samples. Just going in and randomly shooting deer is okay, but in areas that have had CWD for a long time, there is a higher predominance in road-kill deer and hunter-harvested deer because they lose their sense of wariness. The most effective way to sample is by hunter-harvested deer and working with ALDOT (Alabama Department of Transportation) to identify road-kills.”

Above all, Sykes said he wants hunters to continue to pursue deer just like they always have.

“Again, this is not something to cause people to quit hunting,” he said. “We need them to become educated on what CWD is. Don’t rely on what they’ve heard at hunting camp or what they saw on Facebook. Talk to us to try to understand the disease and what we’re doing to try to prevent it.”

Sykes reiterated how hunting, especially deer hunting, is a cornerstone in Alabama’s culture and economy. Hunting has an almost $2 billion impact annually on Alabama’s economy.

“This is not a hunter issue,” he said. “This is not even a deer hunting issue. This is a State of Alabama economic issue and a way of life issue. We need people to understand what’s going on, and we need their assistance to gather these samples in the most efficient way so we can stay on top of it. Heaven forbid, if it does get here, we will be prepared to mitigate the risks as much as possible.”

Previously, tissue samples had to be sent out of state to be tested for CWD. In 2018, WFF provided funds for the Alabama Department of Agriculture to purchase CWD testing equipment, which was set up at Auburn University. The equipment and technician have been certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and can test up to 90 samples per day.

Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship said the new CWD testing equipment speeds up the state’s response time considerably.

“We don’t have to wait on anybody,” Blankenship said. “We take our samples to the Department of Agriculture lab at Auburn University. We will get those test results quickly and be able to respond as soon as possible.”

The freezers for the self-service sample stations are located in Fayette, Lamar, Marion, Franklin, Lauderdale, and Colbert counties and are available to receive deer head samples 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

At the self-service locations, hunters must first remove the deer’s head with 4-6 inches of neck attached. For bucks, antlers can be removed at the base of each antler or by removing the skull plate before bagging the head. Hunters will then place the head in the provided plastic bag and tie it closed. They will need to complete all sections of the Biological Sample Tag, and attach the tag to the bag with a zip tie. Hunters will take the bottom receipt portion of the Biological Sample Tag before placing the bagged head in the freezer. All materials needed to drop off a sample are provided at each freezer location.

Locations of the self-service CWD drop-off sampling sites are:

Fayette County, Fayette County Extension Office, 650 McConnell Loop, Fayette, Ala., 35555

Lamar County, Hunter’s Gold Processing, 11634 County Rd. 9, Millport, Ala., 35576

Marion County, Watson’s Grocery, 5658 State Highway 19, Detroit, Ala., 35552

Franklin County, Fancher’s Taxidermy, 715 Newell Rd., Red Bay, Ala., 35582

Lauderdale County, Florence Frozen Meats, 1050 South Court St., Florence, Ala., 35630

Colbert County, Yogi’s Texaco, 17750 US Highway 72, Tuscumbia, Ala., 35674

Hunters can also have deer sampled at any WFF District Office (www.outdooralabama.com/wildlife-section) or at the WFF office in Marengo County at 1105 Bailey Dr., Demopolis, Ala., 36732, phone number 334-289-8030. WFF offices are open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Before dropping off the sample, hunters should call ahead to make sure a biologist is available.

Sykes said the test results will be emailed to the hunter within three to four weeks.

Currently, self-service freezers are located throughout northwest Alabama only because of the increased surveillance samples needed in the response zones of the CWD-positive locations in Mississippi and Tennessee.

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

18 hours ago

Mo Brooks to continue key service for Tennessee Valley on House Armed Services Committee

Friday, Congressman Mo Brooks (AL-5) announced he will again serve on the highly influential House Armed Services Committee in the 116th Congress, with increased seniority this time around.

Brooks has served on the important committee for the Huntsville area since taking office in 2011. He will also receive a second committee assignment to be revealed by the House Republican Steering Committee next week.

Among Republican members of the Armed Services committee, Brooks’ seniority has improved to 16th out of 26. His seniority among the full committee membership has officially yet to be determined, but it is expected to improve as well.

In a statement, Brooks emphasized the committee assignment’s importance to his district.

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“The military side of Redstone Arsenal employs roughly 30,000 Tennessee Valley residents,” Brooks said. “In light of the dramatic cut in Republicans on the Armed Services Committee (as we moved from majority to minority status), I am pleased my Republican colleagues chose me to continue serving on Armed Services, where my growing seniority empowers me to better protect America’s national security and promote Redstone Arsenal’s role in providing that security.”

Brooks concluded, “The Tennessee Valley is experiencing rapid economic growth in large part because of Redstone Arsenal’s reputation as a center of excellence. Quite frankly, we often do what no one else in the world can do. Recognizing this, I again successfully competed for a position on Armed Service, which annually produces the National Defense Authorization Act, the primary mechanism whereby Congress authorizes Department of Defense programs.”

Subcommittee assignments for the House Armed Service Committee will be announced in the coming weeks.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

19 hours ago

Aderholt: ‘Abortion ends a human life, plain and simple’ – ‘Not a matter of religion vs. science’

With the March for Life in full swing in Washington, D.C on Friday, Congressman Robert Aderholt (AL-4) released a statement mourning “the loss of more than 60 million unborn children” since Roe v. Wade became law of the land.

Wednesday, January 22 is the 46th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on abortion.

“Today, thousands of Americans joined together to mark the 46th anniversary of a terrible moment in American history – the Supreme Court ruling on Roe vs. Wade,” Aderholt said. “Since that court ruling, we have mourned the loss of more than 60 million unborn children. We must continue to fight for these children who do not have a voice of their own.”

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The congressman added, “This is not a matter of religion vs. science. Science itself shows us that these are not just masses of tissue. I feel calling these unborn children a fetus instead of what they are, an unborn child, is simply a measure to ease guilty consciences. Science has proved that an unborn child’s heart begins beating just 18-21 days after fertilization, that an unborn child’s brainwaves can be detected just 6 weeks after fertilization, and that at 10-11 weeks after fertilization, every organ system is in place.”

“These facts add up to one conclusion, abortion ends a human life, plain and simple,” Aderholt concluded.

In the 116th Congress, Aderholt serves as ranking member of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, and Related Agencies for the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

He is also a member of that committee’s Defense Subcommittee and its Agriculture Subcommittee, as well as the Helsinki Commission.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn