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WVU’s MSIR students continue to tackle real-life manufacturing challenges through virtual means

WVU’s MSIR students continue to tackle real-life manufacturing challenges through virtual means

A global pandemic isn’t stopping experiential learning at West Virginia University’s John Chambers College of Business and Economics – it’s just shifting it to a virtual environment, teaching students valuable lessons on building resilience and swiftly adapting to the unexpected.

Matthew Oliver, manager of Human Resources for Toyota

Students of the College’s West Virginia University’s Master of Science in Industrial Relations (MSIR) program are looking at issues with vendor management, human resources and diversity and inclusion as part of their Strategic Management in Human Resources course.

“The student teams are meeting on their own and we have scheduled coaching Zoom meetings with Toyota representatives,” said Kelly Nix, Teaching Assistant Professor and Organizational Leadership Community Liaison for the Management department. “The students are professional and come prepared with their questions and discussion points.”

While the students would typically meet with Toyota representatives during class, they’re now able to virtually meet over Zoom. The student teams will have their final portfolio presentations at the end of the month, when they will report their work and make final recommendations to Toyota.

“Even while Toyota representatives are extremely busy figuring out how to work remotely, they are valuing our work and are making the partnership a priority. This speaks to the strong relationship we have built with Toyota over time,” Nix said. “In light of all of this remote work, the students are gaining valuable experience working with distant teams that will most likely help them transition nicely when they begin working in their field.” 

The project is part of a four-year collaboration with Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia in Buffalo. 

"Toyota was curious to see if there were ways that we could develop any kind of partnerships, if WVU could lend its expertise in any way and what that might look like,” said MSIR Program Coordinator Thomas Zeni. “To me, that’s really what experiential learning is all about.”

This summer, Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia will hire three new group leaders as part of its Leadership Development Program, a concept that was first developed by students in the MSIR program’s Talent Acquisition course. 

“We introduced the students to the Toyota Way of thinking and problem solving, and they used this training/coaching to improve and eliminate some of our plant struggles,” said Matthew Oliver, manager of Human Resources for Toyota. 

The Leadership Development Program came as a concept idea last year and was implemented at the Toyota facility in September.

“The current layout of the program is to hire the students full-time as a production group leader or salary supervisor,” Oliver said. “They attend our 10-week group leader school and dive deeper into Toyota’s core training requirements and thinking.  After they graduate from GL School, they begin their four rotations over a two-year time frame covering all aspects of the business from production, logistics, quality and administrative roles within the plant.” 

Once the rotation is complete, those hires are then placed in a home department. There are several checkpoints throughout the LDP program confirming the technical, managerial and leadership development of the LDP group leader.

“We're generating this buzz with students about Toyota and out of the box thinking, letting them accomplish a project that we actually implemented,” said Michael Smith, analyst of talent development for Toyota West Virginia. “For example, the Leadership Development Program, and I'll be sharing it as a best practice for all Toyotas for shortly. It's just a win-win situation for both the students and for us.”

While Toyota has approximately 340,000 great minds working across the globe, these students bring valuable talents and a fresh perspective to the table.

“You're getting somebody that's a fresh set of eyes looking at the problem, somebody from the outside looking in, and they get you a fresh perspective,” Oliver said. “I think that's the biggest advantage. We want to be able to recruit top talent. That's hard to do if you're not getting that perspective.”

It also plays into Toyota’s mission to invest into community involvement and development, Smith said.

“It's an opportunity for us to reach out, understand what other companies are doing and we also get to hear from the folks we want to bring into the plant,” he said. “Right off the bat, they start thinking that way, and I just think it's a good partnership.”

Regardless of whether a student goes on to work for Toyota or some other company, the experience from this course is invaluable.

“Once they go into any organization, they're going to have to learn that organization's way of doing things, whether it's Toyota or anybody else,” Zeni said. “Every organization has its own way of working, so it gives them the opportunity to see it and to understand that it’s not just about coming up with ideas; it's how do we work within the framework we're given because every company is going to have its own framework.”



CONTACT: Brittany Murray
Senior Writer, Office of Strategic Communications
John Chambers College of Business and Economics
(304) 293-5927;

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