Alabama students got a hands-on look at the high-tech operations of the state’s manufacturers over the weekend, while Indy racecars sped by in the background.
Honda Manufacturing of Alabama, along with many of its suppliers, area staffing firms, colleges and universities came together to put on Honda’s “Gear Up Your Career” event, held during the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Birmingham’s Barber Motorsports Park.
But this wasn’t your typical career fair.
Students tried their hand at assembling engines and virtually painting a car. They also competed to see how fast they could torque bolts, a task used in many processes at Honda’s auto assembly plant in Talladega County.
The point was to show off the complex operations that are a part of today’s modern manufacturing industry and spark interest among a new generation of workers in those jobs and the educational paths that lead to them, said Mike Oatridge, the plant’s vice president.
“These aren’t your old manufacturing jobs,” he said. “These are high-tech jobs that involve robotics, machining and other advanced operations. We’re trying to get not only students but also parents to understand that there are really good jobs that come out of the two year colleges.”
ENSURING A PIPELINE
Honda’s Alabama plant and its suppliers, both in the state and across the South, want to ensure a solid pipeline of qualified workers to hire both now and in the future, Oatridge added.
And while the career fair was focused on students, it was open to anyone who passed through the Fan Zone at Barber during the Indy race weekend.
“The race provided us a great opportunity to showcase the state,” Oatridge said. “Barber is probably one of the most beautiful places in the state. It is really a world-class environment. So we’re showing that not only can you get a good job here, but you can also have a good work/life balance and a level of living that maybe people weren’t aware of.”
This was the second year for the career event, and it grew significantly. Last year, there was one tent, and one bolt torque competition. This year featured 32 tents and several hands-on activities.
Honda also partnered with race organizer and promoter Zoom Motorsports this year, distributing thousands of free race tickets to students across Alabama so they could also visit the career event.
Final numbers were still being tallied late Sunday, but Honda officials said they were pleased with the steady stream of people who took part in the activities over the three-day weekend.
SPARKING AN INTEREST
Caden Stewart, a student at Jefferson County’s Bagley Junior High School, stood in line several times to compete against his classmates in the bolt torque competition. The seventh-grader wants to be a welder someday.
“It’s really cool to use the tools,” he said.
Bagley Junior High teacher Candy Moody said the hands-on exposure to manufacturing jobs is valuable for students. It pairs well, she said, with the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum in place at the school.
“The blue-collar worker has sort of been pushed aside, and that’s who we need now,” she said. “Kids can still make a good living without getting a four-year bachelor degree.”
That’s a message Keaton Wood relays to students when he talks at various career events put on by Honda.
The 23-year-old works as an equipment service technician at Honda Alabama, following his completion of a two-year industrial electronics degree at Central Alabama Community College.
“You don’t have to be a doctor or a lawyer to make good money,” Wood said. “When I was growing up, my parents said, ‘No trade school.’ They thought I had to get a four-year degree to make good money. Well, that’s not the complete truth. There are other options.”
Matt Watkins, department manager for staffing and development at HMA, said he and his colleagues hope the students who visited Barber went home with more than just memories of a fun race weekend.
“Hopefully, it sparks an interest in them so when they leave here, they can think about how much they enjoyed these activities and look further into these careers,” he said.