Making It In MGM
Montgomery’s manufacturing industry is producing more than a diverse array of goods; it’s providing area residents a broad base of options for rewarding and lucrative employment.
As the state capital — packed with government buildings filled with state workers — and the home of a major military base, Montgomery may not spring to mind when you think about manufacturing. But maybe it should. The Montgomery metro area is home to 325 manufacturing companies, which together employ more than 17,400 people who produce a wide range of products, everything from cars and aircraft parts to water heaters, surgical equipment and sports drinks. All combined, the area’s manufacturing sector has an almost $5 billion overall economic impact on Montgomery County, and in direct impact, represents $1.5 billion of the county’s $12.6 billion economy. The thousands of manufacturing jobs add up to $1 billion in annual earnings, which represents 9.6 percent of the county’s total earnings. And they’re good jobs too: The average annual salary at Montgomery manufacturing companies is more than $58,500 per year, 29 percent higher than the local average wage.
Joe Friday, President and CEO of Whitfield Foods, Inc., pointed to the industry’s obvious benefits for the area, focusing on providing not just thousands of jobs (120 of which are at Whitfield), but a diverse array of jobs, from “blue collar” to managerial positions. “Alabama and our region have a strong agricultural background, and we have so many government jobs and jobs related to the base, but I’d say manufacturing is the real backbone here, and it’s really varied in its employment offerings,” he said. “Plus, we continue to draw new companies here, and so much else feeds off that.”
Gindi Prutzman, Executive Director of Central AlabamaWorks, shared similar thoughts on the sector’s job creation credentials. “From entry-level employees to certified apprenticeships, manufacturing offers a large range of opportunity for meaningful work,” she said.
Friday called the manufacturing sector’s role in the local economy “key,” but he admitted a little personal bias. “When you think about the companies, about who it is really building something, it’s our manufacturing companies and, truly, their workers,” he said. “I come from a manufacturing family. My dad worked at a paper mill for 40-plus years, and if not for that mill, where I grew up wouldn’t have even existed.”
As Friday noted, it’s not companies that dream up, design, produce and distribute all of these things: it’s people. And yet, despite the opportunities and the high wages available, people are the resource most precious in our manufacturing sector. According to multiple sources, there’s a missing link in the workforce pipeline supplying the industry. “While a career in manufacturing may not be for everyone, there is an urgent need to raise the awareness level of the opportunities that are available now and into the future,” said Robert Burns, Vice President of Administration and HR at Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama (HMMA). “The school systems need to aggressively promote the wide variety of careers that are available in manufacturing. Students’ attitudes and perceptions of working in a manufacturing environment must be changed from solely working on an assembly line to seeing themselves programming robots, designing efficient workspaces or maintaining the latest equipment driven by artificial intelligence.”
For one thing, nationwide, we simply don’t have enough people entering the workforce to replace retiring baby boomers. And it’s not just about warm bodies. Friday highlighted the skills gap that’s hindering the industry, calling it the sector’s “biggest challenge.” “Developing the workers we need is a problem, but it’s not a local problem only; it’s nationwide,” he said. He explained its roots. “As a country, we didn’t focus on skilled trades for years; we didn’t put high school students on that path, and now we have a lack of people with the right skills and aptitudes to meet our industry’s demands,” he said.
Along with other River Region manufacturers, Burns says HMMA is ready to assist by providing guidance on curriculum that can better prepare students for manufacturing careers. In addition to the industry’s efforts, groups like Central AlabamaWorks are pitching in too. The nonprofit organization’s mission is to “facilitate a system that provides business and industry with job seekers and students who have received the education and training that aligns with their needs throughout the region.” To accomplish this, the Council (composed of 26 voting members, leaders in education, chambers of commerce and other economic development organizations, nonprofits, plus state and local government agencies) focuses on schools, promoting the multiple positives awaiting students in manufacturing through its Educator Workforce Academy. “It is impossible for educators to tell students what careers are available if they don’t know, so we make it our goal to educate our educators on the world of possibilities,” Prutzman said. “We believe ‘You cannot be what you cannot see.’”
Another complementary program is the organization’s Career Discovery, an in-person event that gives students hands-on experience with businesses. (COVID restrictions meant 2020’s events were held virtually, but the hope is to return to Trenholm State Community College, the event’s host in past years, when it’s safe to do so.)
Anita Archie, Interim President at Trenholm State Community College stressed that a unified vision and collaboration between multiple parties, including education and industry itself, are essential ingredients in any workforce issue solution. “We must have collaborative conversations among business and industry, elected leadership, K-12, two-year colleges and four-year universities assessing workforce needs for our region. This includes examining workforce availability, talent development, barriers to developing that talent and in turn, working holistically together to address these issues,” she said. Trenholm State is doing its part by continually evaluating its offerings to make certain they remain in-line with industry demands. “Advisory committees for our programs are serving as an asset to stay abreast of workforce needs,” Archie said. “Workforce staff frequently attend advisory committee meetings to ensure they are knowledgeable of the needs of local business and industry. All employees are also involved in community activities such as civic organizations, workforce development entities, chamber of commerce events, as well as many others where they network with leaders of local business and industry to discuss their needs and determine if Trenholm is meeting those needs.”
Friday applauded such work, claiming it’s a critical piece of the puzzle. “Alabama graduates 50,000 students from high school each year and 30,000 go to college, but what about the other 20,000? They need to have their aptitudes identified; they need to see career paths, and they need to see the training to that path,” he said. “As a region, if we can improve linking our education to the demands of our industry, that helps us all, the employer and potential employees.”
While some Montgomery manufacturing companies have been here for decades – Whitfield Foods has been making its sweet Alaga syrup here for more than a century – others are newer arrivals, and all of them are using the latest and greatest technology to produce their products. The culture of innovation this fosters is a valuable contribution to the community too. “Advanced manufacturing uses cutting-edge technology, and these highly skilled employees serve to advance the technology capital of the River Region,” said Prutzman.
Burns outlined the next-gen tech used at HMMA. “We are at the beginning stages of using big data and artificial intelligence to enhance our manufacturing capabilities. We are evaluating advanced information technology programs to effectively manage the logistics and parts flow to successfully build five different vehicles on the same assembly line,” he said. With the company producing more than 1,500 vehicles every day, these technologies are crucial to identify and prevent potential road bumps that could slow production.
The innovation and hard work found inside local manufacturing facilities don’t stop at the factory doors. “Both small and large manufacturers in the River Region make an effort to give back to the community in their own way. These corporate social responsibility efforts are often led by their employees with strong support from the business’ leadership team,” Burns said, “HMMA has a long history of working with our team members to identify needs in the community and ultimately providing the time and resources to the nonprofit or community outreach organizations that have positive impacts in our community.”
Prutzman stressed that area manufacturers and their employees make more than tangible things; they make a lasting impact on the region with their time and talents. “Central Alabama is home to robust manufacturing partners that not only produce great products, but als serve as active partners in the community, giving both time and resources to area schools and non-profits,” she said. “Our manufacturers recognize that a vibrant community is conducive to a vibrant employee base.”
“Central Alabama is home to robust manufacturing partners that not only produce great products, but also serve as active partners in the community giving both time and resources to area schools and non-profits.” - Gindi Prutzman, Executive Director of Central AlabamaWorks
“Alabama and our region have a strong agricultural background, and we have so many government jobs and jobs related to the base, but I’d say manufacturing is the real backbone here, and it’s really varied in its employment offerings. Plus, we continue to draw new companies here, and so much else feeds off that.” - Joe Friday, President and CEO of Whitfield Foods, Inc.
“We must have collaborative conversations among business and industry, elected leadership, K-12, two-year colleges and four-year universities assessing workforce needs for our region. This includes examining workforce availability, talent development, barriers to developing that talent and in turn, working holistically together to address these issues.” - Anita Archie, Interim President at Trenholm State Community College
Like many businesses around the country, Montgomery’s manufacturing industry has made sustainability a priority, according to Joe Friday, President and CEO of Whitfield Foods, Inc. “We have a constant concern about environmental impact and are examining how we can be more efficient and reduce the impacts and costs of waste,” he said. “We care a lot about doing our best in these areas.”
The automotive industry as a whole is making what Burns deemed a “significant investment” in more eco-friendly transportation, options like autonomous driving capabilities, electric vehicles and other clean mobility alternatives. He claimed the focus on sustainability is imperative to serve today’s consumer. “The question is not if but when the U.S. car buyer will make a significant move toward hybrid or electric vehicles versus internal combustion engines,” he said. “It is a challenge because fuel prices remain low, and electric charging times are still too long for most consumers.”
Burns also outlined advancements made in other countries and called for the United States to do more. “The Korean, European and Chinese governments have already made significant infrastructure investments to support both electric and fuel cell vehicles,” he said. “The U.S. needs to do the same to help increase the acceptance of clean mobility solutions.”
“The question is not if but when the U.S. car buyer will make a significant move toward hybrid or electric vehicles versus internal combustion engines,” he said. “It is a challenge because fuel prices remain low, and electric charging times are still too long for most consumers.” - Robert Burns, Vice President of Administration and HR at Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama (HMMA