Chuck Ernst says finding IT talent is a challenge.
So how do the automakers in Montgomery, Ala.; Canton, Miss.; and Lincoln, Ala., fulfill their information technology needs?
Carmakers in the South are working through a multi-year wave of factory construction and expansion. They are recruiting thousands of production workers, supervisors, engineers and maintenance personnel.
But finding qualified IT professionals has been especially challenging.
"I'm not going to tell you it's easy, because it's not," says Ed Castile, director of Alabama Industrial Development Training (aidt.edu), a state agency that recruits and trains virtually all of the auto industry workers in Alabama. "But we're getting it done.
"We can take somebody off the street and train him to be a skilled auto assembler. But you can't do that with the new level of technological skill that's needed to program robots and keep software systems up and running. It takes a little more effort in recruitment."
This month, Hyundai Motor Co. (Hyundai-motor.com) is starting to produce Sonatas at a $1 billion plant in Montgomery, its first in the United States. The plant will be among the most automated of Hyundai's plants.
To staff its IT department there, Hyundai bypassed the local hiring pools. Instead, it used recruiters to assemble a staff that was versed in using SAP AG software.
As a result, the 35-person department is made up mainly of former traveling SAP AG (sap.com) consultants, says Hyundai spokesman Kerry Christopher. He says these were "folks who were ready to settle down in a nice community to work with a single employer."
At Honda Manufacturing of Alabama LLC (Honda.com) in Lincoln, which doubled in size last year, a 45-person IT crew works on three shifts. Although the plant operates Monday through Friday, IT staffers work on weekends to download new software.
Finding all the IT talent Honda needs has been an ongoing effort, admits plant manager Chuck Ernst. Birmingham, 40 minutes west of the plant, is a big enough city, with diverse high-tech workers, he says. But Honda must attract them into a factory environment.
"When it comes to recruiting IT people, we're really competing with a different kind of employer - like banks and insurance companies," Ernst says.
Two years ago, Honda got a staffing break when a wave of layoffs in Birmingham's health care industry put skilled IT people on the market.
In Smyrna, Tenn., Nissan North America Inc. (Nissan.com) has dodged that problem. It outsources its IT operations to IBM Corp.
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But Ernst and others say that an even bigger issue will be to put IT skills onto the shop floor. At Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc. (mbusi.com), the company's new emphasis is on a skill set that integrates industrial engineering with information sciences.
"There's so much technology in the plant today," says Mercedes spokeswoman Linda Sewell.
Mercedes is preparing to open a renovated plant in Tuscaloosa, Ala., that has 10 times the number of robots as it did previously.
Says Sewell, "We really want our people to be able to see things both from the process side and from the IT side."