Mario Lozoya, the new executive director of the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corp., lacks a traditional economic development background, but he thinks his experience in workforce development for Toyota Motor Manufacturing in San Antonio equips him to topple barriers to prosperity in Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley.
The McAllen native had been with the Marines for 23 years on active duty and was garrisoned with a California-based aviation unit when he began considering retirement. As part of an effort to improve aviation operations through the organizational philosophy of “lean thinking,” Lozoya was assigned to study The Toyota Way, a set of principles and practices underlying the automaker’s managerial and production systems.
He had no idea at the time Toyota was planning to build a truck plant in San Antonio, the company’s sole U.S. truck plant. Lozoya had learned international supply-chain logistics with the aviation unit in Iraq, though prior to that he’d been a Marine Corps legal officer with a degree from Naval Justice School, and also had experience in curriculum development and as an information technology specialist.
Lozoya applied to Toyota in 2005 and was hired as manufacturing supervisor in charge of the plant’s high-tech paint department, entering training while the plant was still under construction.
“ Learning how to run a large department like that was a huge task for me,” Lozoya said. “Those kinds of departments run about 400 to 500 people.”
He oversaw the paint department for three and a half years until the plant’s executive leadership, in search of a local Hispanic with a legal and manufacturing background, put him in charge of government relations and external affairs for the company. Lozoya was given the responsibility of fixing a problem that threatened the plant’s long-term sustainability: lack of sufficient workforce.
Toyota had plants in rural parts of Indiana, Kentucky and Mississippi but had never built one in an urban environment, which posed unique workforce challenges, he said.
“ We didn’t know how to operate in a big city like San Antonio,” Lozoya said.
The demographics of the city’s south side, where the plant is located, were nearly identical to Brownsville and the Valley, he said.
“ You have the 95-percent-plus Hispanic population that’s bilingual, that’s 88 percent financially disadvantaged, that has a high dropout rate, that has a lack of role models in the community — the list is long,” Lozoya said.
San Antonio had no history of advanced manufacturing and no apparatus for workforce training and development, so Toyota had to create one if the plant was to be viable, he said. For the first three years the company used a shotgun approach targeting six counties, but failed to accomplish much because the extent of the problem was still poorly understood, Lozoya said.
He turned his knowledge of lean thinking, data analysis, gap assessment and cost analysis — fundamentals of advanced manufacturing — to the workforce issue, he said.
“ I applied that to the community: What is the problem? What is the root cause? What is the issue?” Lozoya said.
It meant identifying specific problems, digging into what school districts, community colleges, economic development organizations, business associations, nonprofits and others were and weren’t doing to address them, and finding out how all of them could coordinate toward a common cause: raising a trained workforce, he said.
“ We all realized that it takes a long time,” Lozoya said.
It took a decade in fact. Toyota eventually implemented a “backyard strategy,” largely developed by Lozoya, narrowing its workforce-development focus from multiple counties to a 30-mile radius around the plant, after a zip-code study revealed that most of its employees lived within a 15-minute drive, he said.
Likewise, most Valley residents’ commute is less than 30 minutes, Lozoya said, noting that in Hispanic cultures, especially, people like to work near their homes.
“ If we don’t have opportunities for them close to home, well then, they’re not going to work there,” he said.
Lozoya said creating that employee pipeline for Toyota has had a significant impact on South San Antonio’s educational attainment and household income. The plant’s payroll is more than $27 million a month, he said.
“ When you hire in your backyard it changes that community, and we realized that change in about 10 years,” Lozoya said. “That’s where I got experience in economic development: How can you bring companies into a footprint that typically doesn’t have a manufacturing background?”
He said he thinks that success can be repeated in Brownsville, with its similarity to South San Antonio, and with the goal of creating a “just in time” workforce responsive to companies’ particular needs. A successful effort here could be a model for the whole Valley, though he hopes that — thanks to lessons learned in San Antonio — it won’t take a decade, Lozoya said.
Acknowledging the absence on his résumé of experience as an economic development corporation director or other traditional background, he said that when GBIC’s leadership picked him he believes they were looking for a different type of problem solver.
“ I’d like to think that I have that kind of experience that I can bring to the community, and I’m looking forward to it.”