TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Michigan manufacturers can be competitive in the face of rising global competition, but they have to stress education more and work harder at developing a world-class workforce, says Global Engine Manufacturing Alliance President Bruce Coventry.

“To retain Michigan’s competitive advantage, businesses must be involved with their local schools and communities,” Coventry says at the Management Briefing Seminars here. “We must provide opportunities and incentives for our skilled workforce to stay in Michigan and help forge the future of manufacturing.

“A few auto makers are building in the South. They’re saving a few dollars, but sacrificing the highly skilled workforce found in the Midwest,” Coventry says, while pointing out that simultaneously, some of Michigan’s most skilled workers also are the most mobile and are leaving the state.

Coventry holds up his Dundee, MI, engine plant as a model for a U.S. manufacturing plant that is globally competitive. GEMA is a 3-way alliance between DaimlerChrysler AG, Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. that has five plants in three countries with production capacity for 1.8 million engines.

In the U.S., the company’s hourly employees are represented by the United Auto Workers union. However, there are only two job classifications and workers are cross-trained so they can rotate through the machine and assembly departments in the plant. Crews also rotate on different shifts.

Historically, unionized auto plants have many job classifications and shifts, and specific jobs are allocated based on seniority. Critics say this hinders productivity.

GEMA hourly employees also have at least a 2-year college degree or journeyman status. In the salaried ranks, 71% have 4-year undergraduate degrees and 29% have advanced degrees.

There is a significant need for education, government and industry partnerships in manufacturing to create a pipeline of highly skilled people, Coventry emphasizes.

GEMA is doing its part by, among other things, being involved with government research programs, collaborating with local community colleges on changes to manufacturing curriculum, doing educational outreach at the elementary school level and offering onsite degree and continuing education programs, Coventry says.

The company’s model uses small 6- to 8-person teams on the factory floor with no first-line supervisors. Salaried engineers are assigned to work with specific teams and frequently take direction from the team.

In today’s manufacturing environment, workers have to know how to solve problems and respond to emergencies on their own and not stand around waiting for so-called experts to arrive, Coventry tells a small group of reporters following his presentation.

Conversely, having teams of technical experts doing nothing while they wait for a problem to crop up also is wasteful – hence GEMA’s focus on teams, education and cross-training.

“Some people say having firefighters sitting around doing nothing is a good thing,” he says. “In manufacturing, that’s not good.”

Even though hourly workers are represented by the UAW, only a couple of workers from other auto or engine plants were hired in at GEMA, Coventry says. Instead, the plant’s workforce has been drawn from the ranks of smaller tool and die companies. A significant number of new workers are former Northwest Airlines mechanics.

The tool and die workers are desirable because they have lots of technical skills and training and are accustomed to performing many different tasks. The airline mechanics are used to working under pressure in a highly technical environment and have worked out extremely well, Coventry says.

Thousands of Northwest Airlines mechanics represented by the Airline Mechanics Fraternal Assn. lost their jobs last year following a labor dispute with the airline.

dwinter@wardsauto.com