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Alabama’s auto industry primes for growth milestones in 2021

Alabama’s auto industry is poised for a stellar year in 2021, with plans to add thousands of new jobs along with highly-anticipated new products as companies deepen their roots in communities across the state.

Automakers are in the midst of major new construction and expansions, including the Mazda Toyota Manufacturing plant in Huntsville and the electric vehicle manufacturing operation for Mercedes-Benz U.S. International in Tuscaloosa and Bibb counties.

The Alabama Department of Commerce estimates the state industry will add more than 6,000 jobs in the coming months, as recent years’ project announcements materialize. Last year alone, new and expanding auto industry projects topped 1,900 jobs and $1.1 billion in investment, based on public announcements tracked by the Alabama Department of Commerce.

Production lineups are expanding, too. In 2021, Alabama’s auto plants will produce a mix of 15 different models, up from 11 last year.

Industry activity stretches beyond the major automaker projects into surrounding areas as large supplier networks take shape. Such projects launched in 2020 accounted for more than 1,400 jobs and over $220 million in investment of the auto industry totals, based on those public announcements.

One Alabama automaker already has grabbed the spotlight in the new year. Last week, the redesigned Hyundai Elantra sedan, which is assembled at the company’s Montgomery factory, was named the 2021 North American Car of the Year.

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES

The year 2020 was one of upheaval for everyone amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and Alabama automakers initially faced extended shutdowns and limited production capacity like the rest of the global industry.

However, they resumed operations with stringent safety measures and also redeployed their resources to supply face masks, face shields and other protective gear to hospitals and healthcare workers nationwide.

“2020 was a year like none of us have ever seen, but Alabama’s auto industry persevered while also providing critical support to communities in need,” said Greg Canfield, Secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “This year, they are not only back on track, but also forging ahead with expansions of their workforces and production lines.

“The new technologies and products that are driving these expansions show Alabama’s auto workers continue to play a leading role in the industry worldwide.”

Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama is adding two new vehicles to its Montgomery assembly lines this year: the Tucson SUV, which is the automaker’s best-selling U.S. model, and the Santa Cruz crossover.

The moves come during a period of growth for HMMA, which in 2019 announced a $410 million expansion to prepare for the Santa Cruz, a project that is creating 200 jobs.

Along with the new models, HMMA continues to produce the Elantra and Sonata sedans and the Santa Fe SUV.

The Elantra’s big win last week wasn’t the first time it has captured the coveted North American Car of the Year title, which is awarded by an automotive media panel. It also won in 2012.

Jurors tested more than 40 new vehicles before selecting winners in the car, truck and utility categories. The 2021 Elantra, which features a sportier design than its predecessors and the model’s first-ever hybrid vehicle technology, beat out two other finalists for the Car of the Year award: the Nissan Sentra and the Genesis G80.

“Elantra is a symbol of our blend of dynamic design, advanced technology and great fuel economy,” said José Muñoz, president and CEO, Hyundai Motor North America. “Elantra customers are going to experience all of the hard work and dedication that went into making this class-leading car.”

GROWING PRODUCTION LINEUPS

New products are also rolling out of the Honda Manufacturing of Alabama plant in Talladega County.

Workers are building the redesigned 2021 Ridgeline, which is expected to arrive on dealer lots next month. The next-generation pickup has a more rugged look with a wider stance and boxier front-end styling. It leads the segment in interior space for passengers and gear, has updated safety and entertainment systems and carries on Honda’s trademark versatility with features like the in-bed trunk.

The new Ridgeline is built alongside the Odyssey minivan and Pilot and Passport SUVs at the Lincoln plant. HMA’s advanced engine facility, which started up in 2015, registered a major milestone last year with the completion of its 2 millionth engine.

Meanwhile, Mazda Toyota Manufacturing, a joint venture automotive plant between Mazda Motor Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp., continues to ramp up its operations in Huntsville.

The $2.3 billion facility, projected to ultimately employ 4,000 workers, is expected to begin production this year.

Initial hiring began a year ago, and in November, the company kicked off its second wave of production hiring, expected to include about 3,000 positions.

AIDT, the state’s primary workforce development agency, is assisting MTM with the hiring process. Wages for production team members start at $17 per hour with a top-out rate of $23 per hour, plus a shift premium and overtime.

Other open positions include multi-skilled maintenance team members, tool & die team members and facilities maintenance jobs, with wages that range from $23.50 to $33 per hour.

Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, which started the modern auto industry era in Alabama more than 25 years ago, is still pioneering in the state.

The automaker is set to begin producing luxury electric SUVs in Tuscaloosa County in 2022, a plan that will involve a major rollout of new vehicle technology.

MBUSI announced the plan three years ago, along with a $1 billion investment in Alabama. The project includes a battery pack assembly plant in Bibb County and additional investment in the Vance plant.

Mercedes is expected to ramp up the hiring process as the new facilities and technology progress throughout this year.

(Courtesy of Made in Alabama)