PRINCETON, Ind. Tom Suter once worked for a company that had a two-person human resources team - himself and the person answering the phone.
When he went to work for Toyota in Georgetown, Ky., he was one of 150 human resource team members.
Now general manager of administration at Toyota's not-yet-opened pickup truck factory in Princeton, Ind., Suter says he is viewed as an equal of the production manager. Moreover, he is included in all company functions.
'HR is considered in everything we do here,' Suter says. 'We don't have more power than other departments, but we do have more involvement.'
The way automakers recruit workers, hire them, train them, develop them and address their needs has undergone a revolution in America over the past two decades. No longer do companies hire casually or based on the applicant's personal contacts and references. Now, human resource managers take an active role in shaping plant work forces, setting a company's culture and even guiding automakers through delicate issues.
The biggest agent behind this evolution: the arrival of the transplants.
Over the past two decades, Japanese and German automakers have staffed new U.S. plants with tens of thousands of new workers and no obligations to the old way of doing things. What mattered to hiring officials at BMW in South Carolina or Mitsubishi in Illinois was not whether applicants had car-building experience. What mattered was whether they were trainable, reliable and willing to embrace unfamiliar ways of working, including working in self-directed teams.
'We believe that every employee contributes to the bottom line in a significant way,' says Jackie Sexton, manager of human resources at the Princeton Toyota plant. Princeton managers are currently screening applicants for about 2,300 factory jobs.
Finding and training the right people is only half the human resources task. The other half involves keeping them happy and motivated enough that the system would not break down, or that workers would not turn to the UAW in an effort to change plant practices.
THE BIG 3, TOO
The new approach to human resources is even taking root among the Big 3, though their hiring needs have been modest since the 1970s. In recent years, Detroit's automakers - Chrysler Corp. in particular - have begun hiring new employees. Each company is looking for different employees, but they all share common factors, says John Arnold, vice president of Aon Consulting, a Detroit firm that recruits and screens employees for each of the Big 3. They all want employees who can provide continuous improvement and suggestions, Arnold says. And they want factory personnel who can adapt to new methods, who can communicate and who can cooperate in a team environment, he says.
While the transplants introduced these new hiring philosophies, the domestic automakers are not so much imitating them as simply catching up to contemporary practices, Arnold says.
'I think that with both the transplants and the Big 3, it's more a matter of the perspective of the times,' Arnold says. 'In areas of quality, if you don't have control of the processes, you don't have control of the quality. You may produce quality, but you aren't assured of it. That perspective now pervades the industry.'
But Aon Consulting's employee-assessment steps are strikingly similar to those of Nissan, BMW or Toyota.
Applicants are first tested for reading, mathematics and mechanical dexterity.
Then applicants are placed in small groups for a few hours for behavioral assessment. In this stage, applicants are asked to perform a task as a group to see how they work together to solve problems. They could be asked to assemble a product or to improve a process. The key is to see how they interact and how they approach a problem.
Those who succeed in team problem-solving are interviewed in person, by either the automaker's management or Aon Consulting.
Those who pass this step are then placed in a pool of names, from which the automaker can hire when the need arises.
The assessment takes about eight hours, spread over a number of days.
THINGS TO COME
Dan Moore, a spokesman for Chrysler, says that as far as Chrysler is concerned, an applicant whose name appears on the Aon list is considered qualified.
'When we need someone, we just go from the list provided,' Moore says. 'This allows us to get a more qualified person. It takes out the possibility of hiring someone just because the applicant is someone's brother or uncle. We know they can work in teams when we hire them.'
Arnold says this system is simply becoming a routine part of how the industry does business.
'If you think about it, people are a key aspect of whether a company is successful or not,' he says. 'It takes time and attention to make sure the right work force gets on board.'
It is a relatively small volume of hiring at the moment. But it does suggest the shape of things to come across the entire U.S. auto industry. The issue of the Big 3 work force is considered a ticking time bomb by some. A University of Michigan report published two years ago noted that the Big 3 will collectively have to hire more than 200,000 factory employees by 2003, just to maintain their current production levels. That is because so little hiring occurred over the past 20 years and because so many current workers are nearing retirement age.
WHO'S WEEDED OUT?
The new long-term attitudes partially explain the interest level that new jobs generate. The 2,300 planned jobs at Toyota's Princeton plant drew seekers from across the region.
'We're looking for enthusiastic, smart problem solvers,' Sexton says. 'They need to be looking for continual improvement and always need to be checking the quality of their work. They need to take pride and constantly improve their product. We're looking for teamwork and cooperation and flexibility.'