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Potential employees gear up for Blue Springs

ICC sees surge in enrollment for courses relating to skills needed for 2011 Toyota opening

In early 2007, when Toyota announced it was building a manufacturing facility in Blue Springs, the company cited Northeast Mississippi’s workforce as one of the big reasons that the area landed the project.

Now that Toyota has made known its plans to start building Corollas in fall 2011, preparing that workforce takes on a sense of urgency.

The Itawamba Community College Belden Center in Fulton will be the headquarters for all Toyota-related workforce development and training.

The Itawamba Community College Belden Center in Fulton will be the headquarters for all Toyota-related workforce development and training.

Denise Gillespie, workforce development and training team leader at Itawamba Community College, said last week there has been a surge in enrollment in programs whose curriculum teaches skills students would need to land a job at Blue Springs.

Specifically, tool and dye and industrial maintenance courses have become popular areas of study.

“That’s directly related to the demand for those jobs,” Gillespie said. “We have gotten a lot of phone calls. Everybody wants to know what they can do to prepare for a job.”

Now that there’s a target date for one of the most anticipated economic development projects in Northeast Mississippi’s to come online, the details of how ICC and the three other members of the Mississippi Corridor Consortium, a collection of community colleges that will do the bulk of the training for Toyota employees, are coming into focus.

Toyota has advertised 27 skilled, salaried jobs for Blue Springs on its website. It’s the first round of openings the company has announced, and will be filled by folks who will repair and maintain the sophisticated machinery that will produce the Corollas.

But before they can become workers, new hires must be students.

“We provide the training post-hire,” Gillespie said. “Once they’re hired by Toyota, they’ll come to the (ICC) Belden Center. The Mississippi Corridor Consortium will actually provide training for about 10-12 weeks to those newly hired employees in the skilled area. It’s actually part of their job to come to class Monday through Friday from 8-4:30.”

ICC’s Belden Center is an old furniture manufacturing facility the school bought from Lane Furniture last July, said James Williams, vice president of economic and community services at ICC. It will serve as the headquarters for all Toyota-related workforce training. It sits about eight miles from Toyota’s plant.

Gillespie said she expects the first class of skilled Toyota workers to start early this fall.

While the details and timelines of Toyota’s skilled workforce have been established, the same for the 2,000 production workers the company will eventually hire hasn’t happened.

Gillespie and Williams both said they expect Toyota to fill in some of the gaps in the next month or so.

David Copenhaver, vice president of Toyota Blue Springs, confirmed those plans last week in an interview with the Mississippi Business Journal. 

“That sounds about right,” Copenhaver said. “We are tweaking the schedule. We pretty much have the broad outline done. Right now we’re working on the details.”

Copenhaver said training for the production workers would include classroom instruction at the Belden Center, and hands-on work at the Blue Springs facility and other Toyota plants in the U.S. Positions will be filled on an as-needed basis, as different machinery is installed at Blue Springs.

Toyota applicants can also use the Belden Center, whose renovations are close to being completed, to take assessment tests that are a part of the application process.

“We will definitely be a hub of activity for the hiring and the post-hire training. It should be really busy,” Gillespie said.

Sixty miles to the west of Belden, another training hub is coming online. The Center for Manufacturing Excellence at Ole Miss will enroll its first class when school starts in August.

Twenty-five freshmen will start a curriculum that blends the business side of advanced manufacturing with technical and engineering principles. The program will teach students the Toyota Production System.

Toyota and Ole Miss’ CME have a established a partnership similar to the one Nissan has with Mississippi State’s Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems.

“We will be able to give students hands-on training and let them do what they would do if they were working in a factory,” said James Vaughan, CME interim director and professor of engineering at Ole Miss. “Working in teams, they will be required to develop a product for manufacture, designing that product and engineering and assembling the lean manufacturing assembly line needed to produce that product.  Students will also be required to develop business and marketing plans for their products and to plan how to manufacture those products in a cost-efficient manner.”

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