Skilled to Work: New study suggests education changes to help grow the auto sector in the South

The white paper was facilitated by Alabama A&M's College of Business and Public Affairs.

Posted: Apr 4, 2019 5:29 PM
Updated: Apr 4, 2019 6:02 PM

If it wasn’t apparent with the recent ribbon cuttings and ground breakings over the past year, Alabama is cementing itself as an automotive state.

According to a white paper commissioned by the Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG), Alabama is the number three auto exporting state in the country, thanks to the presence of the Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Hyundai plants.

Facts about Alabama and Tennessee's auto sectors:*

Alabama

  1. Nearly 40,000 automotive manufacturing jobs
  2. $13 billion in capital investment
  3. Mazda-Toyota partnership to open a $1.6 billion joint venture assembly plant
  4. Exports of Alabama-made vehicles and parts totaled $9.5 billion in 2017
  5. Alabama is the number three auto exporting state

Tennessee

  1. 135,000+ automotive workers in 917 locations
  2. $24.1 billion in foreign investments in operations
  3. Nissan's North American headquarters is in Franklin
  4. Automotive operations in 88 of its 95 counties
  5. 900+ automotive parts suppliers

*Facts are according to the findings of the white paper

Students in Morgen Perez's eighth grade science class at Central School use virtual reality headsets to add to their lesson plan. The white paper suggests that similar technology can also stimulate students' interest in the auto industry at a younger age. Students in Morgen Perez's eighth grade science class at Central School use virtual reality headsets to add to their lesson plan. The white paper suggests that similar technology can also stimulate students' interest in the auto industry at a younger age.

However, like many other areas of the manufacturing sector, the auto industry is facing a steep challenge of finding qualified workers to fill their plants.

“This is real problem today. And if we don’t take approaches to solve this, it’s only going to get worse,” said Dr. Del Smith.

Smith serves as the dean of the College of Business and Public Affairs at Alabama A&M and the facilitator of the white paper. He said it was drafted to start a conversation about what can be done.

“[T]he execs of the automobile industry right now are looking at this and they are concerned because their long-term plans are very much contingent on this workforce issue,” said Smith.

Smith said that for years, auto makers have worked with universities, two-year colleges and high schools to create a pipeline to the workforce.

Elkmont High School junior Allison Anderson is one of dozens who seized on such opportunity at the Limestone County Career Technical Center. She chose the pain and collision repair course.

“A lot of people doing this have opportunities straight out of high school, like a lot sooner than people would. Whereas in other careers, you have to build yourself up a lot,” said Anderson.

Mazda Toyota Manufacturing (MTM) executives echoed that same sentiment during a recent tour of the center.

“I think the key thing is sparking that interest at the high school level. Would really like to spark that interest even at the middle school level,” said Mark Brazeal, the vice president of administration for MTM.

In fact, starting younger is one of the key suggestions Smith and others propose in how to improve the education system.

“[I]f we don’t capture their interest in the early age, we can’t expect that in high school that they’re going to all of a sudden be interested in this particular field or industry,” said Smith.

The white paper sixth through eighth grade is the ideal range to start getting kids interested in the auto industry. Smith told WAAY 31 that one way of doing that is by bringing the auto industry to them through methods like augmented reality and virtual reality.

Central School in Madison County was one of the only ones of its kind in our area when it launched nearly two years ago.

The school uses the Google Expeditions app and headsets, which include more than 900 virtual reality options.

Teachers rotate using the VR cart in all areas of education, from health science to history. They are also able to use them for students from kindergarten through eighth grade.

Although the headsets aren’t used for the auto sector right now, seventh and eighth grade science teacher Morgen Perez said they inspire students in a completely different way.

“Just to see them get excited about their learning and to also visualize what we’ve been learning about, that really inspires me. That's awesome,” said Perez.

Over in Huntsville, local company Archarithms mainly uses its mixed reality technology to help in the areas of defense and military strategy.

Senior Developer Anthony Tamez and his brother, Engineering Technologies Developer Chris Tamez, gave WAAY 31 a demonstration of the intuitive fusion of virtual and augmented reality.

“Not only are you augmenting your existing world with virtual items, but as you move around the scene, and as you turn off the device, [the headset] is anchoring it in 3D space. So if I’m looking over here and moving around, and I come back, it is still where I left it. And that will persist through time as you create these virtual items,” said Anthony Tamez.

He added that through software like theirs, manufacturers would be able to virtually transport students into their plants.

“You can create and do a walkthrough of these different factories as if you were there, but you wouldn’t have any of the safety concerns,” said Tamez.

Tamez said one of the biggest misconceptions that he wants educators and businesses to know is that they don’t have to break the bank to bring start using some of this technology.

“There are very affordable options that Google has come up with, that pretty much give you a cardboard container that you can put your smart phone in and still give you the same experience as if you were wearing a higher end device,” said Tamez.

Deputy Secretary of Commerce Ed Castile said it’s pivotal to use available and emerging technology to inspire young students to the workforce.

“[T]hat just helps us get the message to them and hopefully, deep into their thinking so that when they get near the end of their education experience, they’re ready to step into the career they’re looking for,” said Castile.

Back at Alabama A&M, Smith agreed that it is crucial to start taking some bold steps to mend what he calls a “broken” education system by adding new technology and new learning techniques, like the “social learning theory.”

“[W]hich suggests that really the only way people learn is one of two ways: through direct experience or from watching others. That really is the basis of so many apprenticeship programs and I think we have to think about integrating that approach even more in our K-12, and even our college system,” said Smith.

To read the white paper in full and learn more about some of the other recommended changes, click here.

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