Mark Brazeal, vice president of administration for Mazda-Toyota Manufacturing U.S.A, believes in the power of opportunity and opening doors for young people and the underemployed. In preparation for the 2021 opening of the manufacturer’s $1.68 billion plant in Huntsville, Alabama, Brazeal is spearheading an innovative approach to hiring.
“One task we have to focus on at Mazda-Toyota is educating the community,” Brazeal says. “We are explaining to high school counselors and others that we have opportunities from skilled labor to production to accountants to engineers. We’ve already started collaborating with high schools and career technical centers. We want to engage with educators so they understand these opportunities and inspire students at an early age – when they are in middle school and high school – about the career opportunities.”
Those students “can aspire to a career with us,” Brazeal explains. “We expect to hire 4,000 people at Mazda-Toyota Manufacturing with 1,500 to 2,000 more working on campus at our on-site supplier.”
Mazda-Toyota planned to hire those 4,000 people by January 2020, and with a competitive labor market, the company is purposefully building a team of well-prepared employees. Part of the process is “a day in the life” simulation.
“This allows prospective candidates to understand what they would have to do on a daily basis and determine if it’s something they would want to do,” Brazeal explains. “It’s a hands-on assessment. We want people who work hard, are dedicated and willing to learn.”
Brazeal’s leadership in the new joint venture is multi-faceted, including human resources, safety, production control, environmental, accounting and external affairs.
“We were highly interested in starting this even before we were in full production,” Brazeal says. “We currently have 15 co-op students – we have no plant yet, but we have the students, and we are using them to install equipment at Limestone Career Technical and Drake Tech. By early next spring, they will be installing equipment in the plant.”
The equipment in educational facilities will train other students before the plant begins production in 2021 on a Toyota SUV and a Mazda SUV, both new to the manufacturers.
When Mazda-Toyota opened an application window for a limited number of team leader jobs for one week, more than 2,000 applicants signed up.
“We not only have a new plant with new team members, we’re producing new brand models, as well,” Brazeal says. “When you talk about motivation and excitement, there’s a lot of both around producing two new models for American car buyers. We expect when we really go into mass production here in early 2020, we will legitimately have tens of thousands of applications.”
By hiring prepared and committed workers for both lines of manufacturing, Brazeal says it’s clear that Alabama, already an automotive powerhouse, is poised for even more growth.
“I certainly envision we are the type of company that everybody is proud to have in their North Alabama community,” Brazeal says. “My dream is to see people start with Mazda-Toyota Manufacturing and being able to grow their careers – I want to see production team members grow into leadership roles. It will be a key focus for us to grow, develop and nurture key talent.
“Hopefully, we’ll continue to grow the organization and diversify our product lineup beyond just the two we will be producing in 2021.”
The new plant is expected to produce 150,000 units each of Mazda’s new crossover model and a new Toyota SUV. To assemble two different cars in one location will require a diverse set of skills, and Brazeal is partnering with area educators to find the right employees.
“We have a very fair evaluation process to be able to assess candidates relative to the skills we need,” Brazeal says. “It also gives (candidates) an opportunity to assess us to see if this is something they like.
“We are doing multiple activities in parallel as we try to learn from what other Toyota plants in the U.S. have done with high schools and community colleges,” Brazeal explains. “We are benchmarking what other automotive companies in this state are doing and taking all of that knowledge to develop our own strategies.”
The collaborative benefits are clear in working with area schools. The partnership includes Calhoun Community College and Limestone Career Technical, both offering multiple career pathways supporting workers for Alabama’s growing auto industry.
“We’re working to launch a skill certification program for any student interested in a technical job,” Brazeal says. “That allows students in high school to go straight from school to a job.”
Calhoun Community College, in Tanner, Alabama, offers work experience through a co-op arrangement, establishing pathways for production and skilled labor employees.
When Brazeal worked with the Toyota engine plant in 2002, he collaborated with Calhoun to launch its program from the ground floor.
Jeff Lynn, vice chancellor for workforce and economic development for the Alabama Community College System, also met with Mazda-Toyota representatives.
“We talked about programs to help prepare applicants,” Lynn says. “One way we did that is to introduce certification programs for the operators with the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council.”
Students who go through the MSSC certification’s four modules, Safety, Quality, Production and Maintenance, and pass all four, become certified technicians, a big boost on the career path.
“That really raises the bar for people who are applying and gives them a good baseline safety standard,” Lynn says. “It takes time to get through the course, but we offer certification in all colleges in the state.”
Lynn says the program also is being rolled out to high schools and being offered as a dual enrollment option.
“High school students can get college credit,” he explains. “If they desire to go to community college, they can continue to maintenance or mechatronics.”
That program is part of ramping up the state’s FAME (Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education) program, a model begun by Toyota in Kentucky in the early 1990s and formalized in 2010. It has grown to 11 states, with a chapter at Calhoun Community College.
“All of us were working together to create a really robust workforce pipeline for them. We are rolling it out to as many community colleges as possible,” Lynn says.
Brazeal says he has been working closely with Vince Green, head of Limestone County Career Technical Center for several months.
“I’m excited about things he is launching there,” says Brazeal, who plans to broaden the reach to Wallace State, Drake State and other community colleges. “He definitely has a vision for his school.”
Green says it’s important for area high school students to understand the jobs available when they graduate. “While in high school, they can get great credentials on their resume before college, and they can have technical as a back-up plan. Our sole purpose is having partnership with industry leaders to help guide us on curriculum and instruction to get skill sets in place to help our students get jobs.”
Green says he sees a definite paradigm shift as students, parents, counselors and manufacturers realize the promise in partnerships.
“When I was in high school, you went to career tech because you couldn’t go to college,” Green says. “Now that has changed. We want you to go to college if you want that, or we want you to go straight to work if that’s what you want. As more people understand that, we’ve overcome a huge obstacle in getting quality students in our program. We’ve really changed the mindset of parents with career tech. Students can come to our school and get career credentials with high-paying jobs and benefits packages.”
Lynn says the demand for industrial team members is huge.
“We have to increase the capacity we are doing at the community college level to meet these demands,” he says. “The key thing for us at the community college system is to listen to what companies need and to start educating students as young as possible.”
“Mark is very, very interested in helping out the underemployed, young students, military student,” says Lynn. “I think that is exciting. Mark really wants to make an impact and help us help people change their lives. That’s really a wonderful thing—helping people who did not know about an opportunity to get a great career with a great company.”