By Dan Shaw, Evansville Courier & Press

Toyota's Princeton plant is slowing its production of minivans and will put more employees through training programs meant to occupy them during the downtime.

The affected employees work in the company's East plant, where the Sienna minivan is built. Because of falling demand, Toyota's Princeton plant plans to cut its production of Siennas by around half between December and January, said Kelly Dillon, a company spokeswoman.

Toyota will deal with the slow down much in the same way as it had acted when it suspended the production of the Sequoia sport utility vehicle and ceased making the Tundra pickup truck in Princeton. Workers in the company's West plant were then put into training programs meant to improve safety, quality and efficiency.

The halt of Sequoia work lasted from August until Nov. 10, while the Tundra line was permanently concentrated in San Antonio, Texas. During the changes, Toyota avoided laying off any of the 4,500 workers it employs in Princeton.

The same will be the case in the Sienna slow down.

"Toyota remains committed to long-term employment stability for team members," Dillon said.

Sienna workers had already attended the training programs to a small degree and will now spend more time in them, she said.

Until recently, sales of the Sienna had fared better than those of the Tundra and Sequoia. But the economy's general malaise has begun to depress demand for the minivan as well.

In October, Toyota sold 8,003 Siennas in the United States. That was down from the 9,610 sold in the same month last year.

Beyond the training programs, Toyota is trying other ways of coping with the flagging demand for large vehicles. It has made plans to ship Sequoias and Tundras overseas. About 15,000 Sequoias will go to the Middle East a year. Latin America markets will receive 150 Sequoias and 1,000 Tundras a year.

Meanwhile, Princeton employees will be kept busy over the coming months preparing for the arrival of the Highlander SUV, which is scheduled to be produced there starting in fall 2009.

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