An arm up: Students training on robot that will be in Mazda Toyota plant | Morgan County

Morgan County Schools has acquired a smaller-scale version of a robot the new Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA plant will use, and it could give an edge to students seeking a job in the joint venture’s planned 4,000-employee workforce. 

Having training on the robot — which has the capacity to do everything from vehicle design to painting and assembly — may not guarantee employment, but it will help plant officials with placement, said Lyndsay Ferguson, assistant manager of HR staffing and development with Mazda Toyota.

“Knowing how to use it is certainly helpful when we are deciding what shop the people will be put into, and it will be part of the consideration of where they get placed,” she said. “It doesn’t change the way they would go through the initial part of the application process.”

Mazda Toyota is constructing a $1.6 billion plant in Huntsville-annexed Limestone County that is scheduled to begin production next year.

The robot is part of the Morgan County Schools Technology Park automotive technology program, which is located at Brewer High and open to students in the county and Hartselle City systems.

Jeremy Childers, career tech and workforce development director for Morgan County Schools, said the school district has been focused on producing a qualified workforce since Mazda Toyota chose its north Alabama location.

“These are good jobs and we want to make sure our graduates have every advantage to get them,” he said.

Morgan County used a $40,000 grant it received from Mazda Toyota to purchase the robot, and electronics teacher Greg Hudson went to Charlotte, North Carolina, for training so he could teach students.

“I’m still learning,” he said last week, as senior students Austin Victory and Alex Cloer looked on.

Victory wants a career in industrial maintenance, while Cloer plans to attend the University of Alabama Huntsville to become an electrical engineer. Neither has ruled out seeking employment with Mazda Toyota and both are amazed at the robot’s capabilities.

“We’ve just started to learn what it will do and I am stunned,” Victory said.

Cloer said the robot will allow students to take numbers and formulas they write on a board and program them into the robot’s computerized brain.

“We’ll know right away if what we are doing is correct,” he said.

Hudson, who lobbied school officials for the robot, said the hand-held control panel is the robot’s brain and is the same panel workers will use in the plant.

“I knew it would be a great benefit for our kids to get the experience,” Hudson said. “The only limit of the robot is our student’s ability to program it.”

The average salary at the plant is expected to be about $50,000, not including benefits. Morgan County Economic Development Authority President Jeremy Nails said suppliers could bring another 6,000 jobs to north Alabama.

Morgan County Superintendent Bill Hopkins Jr. said the school system will continue to identify what students need to get jobs coming to the area and make sure training is available for them.

“Not every student is going to college, but it’s our responsibility to make sure they are prepared for a job,” he said.

The program has been ranked as high as third nationally for training students and about four years ago when the school district revamped the program, the Toyota engine plant in Huntsville provided 12 engines for students to tear down and rebuild.

Childers said students are required to “tear down” the engines and identify every part.

Last year, the auto body collision repair program was one of three singled out by the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools as an outstanding educational model.

“We want to prepare students for every sector in the automotive business,” Hopkins said.

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