News from the Tennessee Valley State, Local and National news
FRIDAY, JULY 8, 2005

Are Alabama workers dumber than Canadians?
When it comes to Toyota, an auto exec seems to think so

By M.J. Ellington
DAILY Staff Writer (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — Workers in Ontario are highly trained, said a Canadian automotive association executive who believes workers in Alabama and Mississippi tend to be illiterate.

Gerry Fedchun's remarks came after Toyota's June 30 announcement that it will build RAV-4 sport utility vehicles at a new plant in Woodstock, Ontario.

President of a Canadian automotive parts association, Fedchun said work force illiteracy in states like Alabama and the superior reading skills of Canadian workers are the reasons the plant is going there and not to the Deep South.

He said the Canadians are cheaper to train, a point that he believes helped persuade Toyota to turn down offers of millions of dollars in incentives to locate in Canada.

The executive's remarks showed up in a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. story this week.

In remarks attributed to Fedchun, the story said the untrained and often illiterate work force in Alabama and Mississippi made it hard for automotive plants to get up to full production in the Southeast. He said trainers in Alabama had to use "pictorials" to teach workers who could not read how to run the highly technical plant equipment.

"The level of the work force in general is so high (in Canada) that the training program you need for people, even for people who have not worked in a Toyota plant before, is minimal compared to what you have to go through in the Southeastern United States," Fedchun said.

This was news to a Toyota executive at the company's Huntsville engine plant.

"Toyota has been extremely pleased with the work force in Alabama," said Jim Bolte, vice president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama in Huntsville. "Since starting production in 2003, we have announced two expansions and continue to hire highly skilled, dedicated Alabamians."

Bolte said more than 70 percent of the plant's employees have at least some college training and called the company's experience in the state "overwhelmingly positive."

Bolte said, "The Alabama work force continues to meet Toyota's high expectations. I truly believe we have assembled one of the most diverse, skilled and dedicated teams in the world, and I have no doubt we will find more of the same as we continue to expand and hire in Alabama."

Alabama Development Office Director Neal Wade said officials at Toyota had already sent him a copy of the CBC article and affirmed that "this is absolutely not the position of Toyota." Wade's office recruits industry to Alabama and works with other state agencies that plan, develop and implement training programs for industry in the state.

Wade said in addition to Toyota, Alabama also has plants representing Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes, as well as hundreds of suppliers. And, with the exception of Hyundai, which just opened its 2 million-square-foot manufacturing plant in Montgomery in May, Wade said all the automotive manufacturing plants in the state have expanded.

Ed Castille, director of Alabama Industrial Development Training, said the Canadian article is not the first to cast incorrect aspersions on Alabama's work force. "This guy is obviously uninformed," Castille said.

AIDT is an arm of the state's Department of Post-Secondary Education. "Our job is to design and put together individualized training programs for each plant," Castille said. AIDT recruits screens and trains employees for the individual jobs. "Any skill they lack, we provide training for," he added.

For the second year in a row, a Site Selection Magazine poll rated AIDT's work force development training program the best in the nation in 2005. The magazine is a national publication for industrial site selection consultants.

Bob Romine, vice chancellor for Workforce Development and Adult Education, affirmed the state's commitment to work force training as a way to expand job opportunities for Alabamians. The state is one of only a few in the country to have an "integrated work force development" program that provides graduated levels of work force preparation.

The integrated programs include training for pre-work force General Education Diploma, online GED, work force literacy and pre-employment skills. Romine said about 24,000 people each year take one or more of the training programs.

When textile plants began to leave Alabama a decade ago, the state got a wake-up call, Romine said. That was when state officials knew Alabama's future work force would wear a different hat, and Romine said the biggest hat is now high-tech manufacturing.

"Last month, Alabama's employment rate was 4.2 percent. That is lower than the national average," Romine added.

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