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Nissan Canton HR staff gearing up for next round of hiring for phase two

One really, really tall order: 4,000 to go, please

CANTON — After taking a breather at the 4,000-employee mark from the far-reaching hiring frenzy at Nissan Canton, the human resources team at the automotive assembly plant is gearing up for another round. When phase two is complete, up to 5,500 people, including contractors, will work under the Nissan roof.

“When we look at what we’ve been through and the accomplishments we’ve made in Canton — launching an unprecedented five vehicles in about a year — the workforce is exactly what we’d hoped it would be,” said Dan Gaudette, senior vice president for North American manufacturing and quality assurance for Nissan North America Inc. (NNA). “We went through a very good process of identifying through the state the workforce we ultimately hired. The whole process has worked extremely well and we’ve hired very good, dedicated, enthusiastic employees who had never worked in an automotive facility before, and certainly not to the efficiency levels we expect. They have been truly outstanding.”

With the exception of two counties — Benton, located between Marshall and Tippah counties on the Tennessee border, and Tunica, home of the third-largest gaming destination in the nation — Nissan employees represent all 82 Mississippi counties.

“In training classes, I always ask who drove the longest distance to get there, and it amazes me that we still have people who drive a couple of hours one way,” said Bob Mullins, director of training for Nissan Canton. “I don’t know how many of them eventually move closer to work, but quite a few continue to commute. When I worked for the community college, statistics showed that when students finished community college, they usually worked within 80 miles of their home. Unless they’re at a graduate or professional level, Mississippians aren’t very transient people. For example, we might have some good ole country folks that farm for mama and live in Simpson County, for example, that just aren’t going to move. Also, if you live in a rural county and start looking at land prices in Madison County, you might find that you can’t afford to move.”

For the calendar year 2003, Mullins supervised the following training classes at Nissan Canton:

• More than 5,000 participants attended 360 production pre-employment classes, involving 32 to 48 hours per class. “Comparing participants and completers, the percentages are very good,” explained Mullins. “If participants didn’t complete the class, it’s usually because they took themselves out. That tells me we went through a real good selection process to get them to the training phase.”

• About 48 maintenance A pre-employment training classes were held, involving 16 to 48 hours for each class. “This number reflects people who wanted to be hired for maintenance positions, but might not have completed the training,” noted Mullins.

• Eight tool and die pre-employment classes were held, with each class accounting for 48 hours. Of the 88 participants, 78 completed the course.

• Some 54 new employee assimilation training classes were held, involving 40 hours per class.

• About 158 participants attended 21 new area manager training classes, with 40 to 80 hours for each class. “We divided those groups into progressive blocks 1, 2 and 3, so there may be some duplication in numbers,” said Mullins.

• Nearly 1,400 participants attended 343 mobile powered equipment training classes, involving 16 to 24 hours per class.

• Some 2,813 participants attended approximately 392 maintenance post-employment training classes, which included scheduled classes through Holmes Community College, in-house training with Nissan’s technical personnel and outside vendor training. (This number might include some duplication, noted Mullins.)

“The pre-employment training is the best thing to happen at Nissan,” said Mullins. “It lets us look at job candidates and them look at us without either one having an obligation to the other. I don’t think there’s a better way to evaluate an employee than to see him work with other people, watch his attitude, and see if he is punctual and how well he handles each task. By the end, we both come to an agreement that they know they’ll like the job and we know they’ll do well.”

The lengthy hiring process for Nissan Canton’s workforce — application, interviews, evaluations and then pre-employment training — began in 2001, shortly after the Japanese automaker announced it would build a $930-million automotive assembly plant in Canton. Before the first major phase of hiring was completed, Nissan announced it would add a second phase, bringing the investment to $1.4 billion, and boosting the number of employees required to produce up to 400,000 vehicles every year.

“We’re very selective,” said Mullins. “We require a lot, and we’re honest and upfront about it. That’s one thing I noticed immediately about Nissan that’s different than other companies I trained. We tell them we hold a higher standard. Then we do. When you go through pre-employment, we tell them exactly what we expect. We walk the walk and talk the talk. A lot of companies say that, but slide when it comes to follow through.”

Galen Medlin, human resources manager for Nissan Canton, said Nissan executives have been impressed with the great pride the workforce takes in the vehicles they build.

“That distinguishes ours as a top-quality workforce,” he said. “They realize if we reach our numbers and build quality vehicles, then job stability will be a long-term commitment here. That’s unusual for Mississippi because unfortunately, many people here have been laid off due to economic problems or companies moving. We’re here for the long haul and we tell our people that. But job stability is dependent on meeting our goals.”

Mullins, who began working at Nissan Canton on Jan. 17, 2001, recalled scribbling projections on a chalkboard three years ago, estimating how many people would drop out of training at various levels and deciding that as many as 22 classes were needed every six weeks to meet the goal of 15 per class.

“It’s mind-boggling,” he said. “Three years ago, there were three of us. Today, there’s well over 4,000 people working here. How it all worked out amazes me. We’ve been very fortunate.” Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

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