TUSCALOOSA, Alabama – Tanya Cabiness was 22 when she stepped into the Mercedes-Benz plant back on July 7, 1997, not long after the first M-Class sport utility vehicle made in Alabama rolled off the factory’s assembly line.
Cabiness had been to college and previously worked in a mobile home manufacturing facility. For her, this place – the automaker’s first auto production facility outside of Germany — made an instant impression. The sprawling 4 million-square-foot facility in Tuscaloosa County has been her workplace for more than 16 years now.
“I knew when I walked in the door, this is where I wanted to be,” she says today.
Earnest Showell followed her through the door at Mercedes not long after. It was 1998, and Showell had previously worked as an orderly at Bryce Hospital, the inpatient psychiatric hospital in Tuscaloosa, and had been attending Shelton State Community College part-time.
For Showell, it was a big opportunity. He started out as team member in production, working for a while with Cabiness. Today, Showell is a team leader in the plant’s assembly shop. During his 15 years with Mercedes in Tuscaloosa County, he has been a trainer in the plant’s continuous improvement program and in basic skills, a position that saw him prepare 1,500 new hires.
For Showell, working for Mercedes has given him skills and expertise that are highly valued at advanced manufacturing factories around the globe. Since he joined the company, he has gotten an up-close view of Mercedes’ operations in Germany and traveled to the automaker’s facility in South Africa for training purposes.
“I know I could go to any manufacturing facility in the world and show people how things are done,” Showell said.
Their experience underlines why jobs at the Mercedes plant are highly prized in Alabama. For one thing, auto plant jobs pay above-average wages for the state’s manufacturing sector. Ahmad Ijaz, director of economic forecasting for the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama, said the average annual wage for people working in motor vehicle and auto parts manufacturing in Alabama in 2011 was $69,225.
But there’s more. In some ways, the vast Mercedes plant functions like its own city, offering workers many on-site services including a cafeteria operation, banking, walking trails and a fitness center, as well as a childcare facility. A health care center on campus operates like a primary care physician’s practice, open six days a week to employees and their insured dependents. The plant also offers a 401(k) plan that BrightScope judged to be one of the best in the auto industry.
University of Alabama engineering professor Bharat Balasubramanian said another reason Mercedes is considered a top employer is its emphasis on training and the continued qualification of its staff and engineering and factory workers. Balasubramanian spent 15 years as head of engineering research and development at Mercedes.
“Mercedes has invested a lot of time and money in us,” Showell agreed.
Cabiness said her job at Mercedes has provided her with more than financial stability. It’s given her a chance to grow. Before she took the job, she had never flown in a plane and had never ventured outside the South. She has now traveled extensively around the world.
She started out at the plant as a team member in production – essentially, a line worker. For years later, she was named a team leader. Other promotions followed. Today, she is Assembly 1 manager for the C-Class project, giving her a key role in the production launch of the sedan at the Alabama plant next year. Read a story on training for the C-Class launch.
“If you had told me that one day I would be heading up a major project here, I wouldn’t have believed it,” she said. “But if you work hard here, you are rewarded.”
Her role as a manager at the plant also has given her a chance to influence others. She has visited area high schools to talk to students and encourage them to consider a career in Alabama’s auto industry. At the plant, she has been able to help develop the skills of team members. She likes the idea of leaving a legacy.
“This job has changed me as a person,” she said. “Mercedes has given me a chance to be a leader.”
Cabiness also has gotten to see the Mercedes plant spread its roots in Alabama. When she started there, the facility was turning out 20 M-Class sedans a day, representing the first trickle of auto production in the state. Last year, the plant produced 180,379 vehicles, spread between three different models.
An expansion project at the factory now under way will boost annual output, and a fifth Mercedes model will roll off the line in 2015. Cabiness said expansions and new milestones have become routine developments at the Alabama plant.
“When you hit a milestone, there is always another one that follows right behind it,” she said.