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Focus on the Workforce: Collaborating Partnerships


Filling the pipeline with skilled workers 

Bob Crigler
International Society of Automation
Business Development Manager
and PTP Advanced Manufacturing
Industry Cluster Manager 

Mike Marlowe
Automation Federation
Client Manager
Director of Government Relations 


Kim Belinsky
International Society of Automation
Senior Administrator
Education Services & Workforce
Development Team Leader

The issues are familiar. The Baby Boomer generation of workers is retiring in droves. The next generation isn't well-trained for manufacturing, and manufacturing doesn't have a glamorous reputation. The myth exists that manufacturing industry careers are dusty/dirty, low-paying, blue-collar positions, and just plain boring. While some of this may have been true in the past, this doesn't describe today's manufacturing environment.

Currently, many people and organizations have dedicated their efforts to working together to dispel these myths. This is one story of a regional approach.

The Automation Federation is a nonprofit, umbrella association of member organizations engaged in manufacturing and process automation that serves as the "Voice of Automation" by providing advocacy, industry-wide strategic analysis, and coordination through its member organizations. The Automation Federation has identified workforce development as a key initiative vital to the future viability of manufacturing.

At the core of development initiative is the goal of building the next generation of automation professionals. The Automation Federation is working to achieve this goal by creating a greater awareness among students (K-12) about the importance of math and science, and how proficiency in them can lead to a wide variety of careers in automation.

Automation Federation has been working with the Piedmont Triad Partnership (PTP) through a US Department of Labor (DoL) WIRED grant on partnership solutions to address these manufacturing challenges. PTP serves a twelve-county region around the Triad cities of Greensboro, High Point, and Winston-Salem in central North Carolina.

The concerns in the Piedmont Triad area are quite similar to other manufacturing regions. The Piedmont Triad has been decimated by global shifts in manufacturing in its legacy industries, including tobacco, furnishings, and textiles.

However, while 250,000 of 800,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in North Carolina between 1997 and 2006, the value of the manufactured goods being produced has grown from about $60 billion to approximately $75 billion in the state.

What's happening, of course, is a combination of productivity gains and a shift from low to high-valueadded production. Thus, legacy industries are being replaced by advanced manufacturing segments such as electronics, biotech/pharmaceutical, and aviation. As an example, some former employees of the furnishings industry are now working on corporate aircraft interiors. For the remaining traditional furnishings manufacturers, productivity is high and niche markets are being found and exploited.

Though fewer employees, including production staff, technicians, and engineers are needed, the remaining high-wage, high-value-added positions require higher skill levels. Even in these difficult economic times, employers are still clamoring for expertise in automation systems, Lean manufacturing, quality control, diagnostics and troubleshooting, leadership/communications, and skills at all levels to continue operations.

Automation Federation and PTP are working together on a comprehensive plan to develop a pipeline of skilled workers. The plan includes business education, collaboration, and industry-recognized skill certification. A key component for building this pipeline and skilled workforce is positive promotion of the combination of manufacturing and technology career opportunities to youth.

Joysticks and dipsticks: A common thread of conversation among industry leaders and HR professionals is that today's youth are very comfortable with computers and telecommunications, but not so much with electromechanical systems. The complaint is that today's generation is less likely to be taking apart toasters than previous generations. Certainly PC skills are of great value everywhere in today's work environment, but not to the exclusion of physical systems. Current employers are looking for quality employees who are as comfortable with a dipstick as they are with a joystick.

Design, build, and move: A powerful partnership approach taken to address this concern is Technology Career Days. This program was designed to showcase area careers and career pathways, as well as create a hands-on, exciting, and engaging display of technology. The key to the program's success was producing a partnership of education, industry, and professional organizations to give hundreds of high school students exposure to technology they would not otherwise get.

North Carolina is privileged to have a strong, vibrant, and comprehensive community college system. With one of the oldest systems in the US, its fifty-eight schools serve all 100 counties throughout the state. Thus, the first program strength was its location.

The premiere Technology Career Days event was held at Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) in March 2009. GTCC is the second largest community college in the state, and has the staff and facilities to support the event. GTCC leadership welcomed hundreds of high school students on campus.

Coincidentally, the technology campus is located adjacent to a 1.5 million ft2 (139,350m2) distribution warehouse, which served as one of the program's first industry partners. It was approached to conduct one-hour tours of their facilities as part of the event.

Continuing the theme of Design, Build & Move, the program was also expanded to include design and logistics industries, along with advanced manufacturing. These three areas represent industry segments identified by PTP as having substantial economic impact in the region.

Specific event area highlights included:

  • Logistics: One-hour tours of the Sears Holdings/Kmart distribution center and warehouse. About 100 students participated. Some individuals had to be turned away due to capacity limitations.

  • Education: Half-hour tours of the Technology Education Center building at GTCC. This included PLC, electronics labs, and CNC machining labs. Students also witnessed instructorled classes in progress. Four other educational institutions also exhibited.

  • Lean Manufacturing: Simulation provided by the North Carolina State University Industrial Extension Service office exposed students to real-world needs and applications of Lean principles.

  • FIRST Robotics: High school team representatives discussed their involvement with FIRST and encouraged students to testdrive a robot on display. Both FIRST Technology Challenge and FIRST Robot Challenge robot teams exhibited, and a full field was installed for the event.

  • Automotive and Transportation Technology: Childress Racing, NASCAR Institute, a Davidson County Community College (DCCC) project car and motorcycle, a GTCC Hybrid electric vehicle, and truck cabs from Old Dominion and EPES Carrier were also represented or displayed.

  • Machining Technology: The GTCC machining facility, Kaydon Corp., Timco Aviation Services, and the National Institute for Metalworking Skills were all represented.

  • Maintenance: Two private training organizations exhibited their offerings.

  • Technology: Cisco Systems, IEEE, and ABCO Automation all had technical exhibits.

  • BioTech: Banner Pharmacaps, Olympus Microscopy, Wake Forest University Microscopy program, and DCCC Zoo and Aquarium Sciences program all provided information displays.

Hundreds of students from sixteen high schools took part in this twoday event, visiting thirty-five exhibits that highlighted automation and control technology, and provided handson learning activities. The students had the opportunity to discuss design, manufacturing, and logistics careers in fields from product design, to automation, to transportation. At each exhibit, students were offered information to help them better understand the importance of math and science in the automation profession and technology fields.

Model for the future: Technology Career Days is built on the model of another successful series of events—Construction Career Days (CCD). CCD is a program designed to give students hands-on access to construction equipment, technology, and professionals. A multitude of such events held throughout the US have exposed hundreds of thousands of students to careers in transportation construction fields.

A typical Construction Career Days event may include welding, bricklaying, and dozens of exhibitor booths, including secondary education (community colleges and four-year universities), construction businesses, and professional organizations. Depending on the site, outdoor displays could include bulldozers, backhoes, bucket trucks, and graders, among others. It is an all-inclusive event designed to be hands-on, with students wearing hard hats and being instructed how to use equipment by trained professionals. Students can actually move dirt, dig and fill holes, and ride in cherry pickers.

Construction companies, along with other industry partners, gladly lend their time, equipment, and expertise to promote construction careers to the next generation of drivers, operators, and builders. We believe not only that technology careers deserve the same promotion, but that it is vital to our country's future. This program model can be applied across the gamut of industries in the same form, but with a different focus, and replicated across the board or across the country without reinventing the wheel.   

Building the next generation: In its second year, Automation Federation and the International Society of Automation (ISA) are again working together to bring 400–500 middle/high school math and science students from throughout the Houston Independent School District to its iAU2M8.09 (IAutomate) event. This event is held in conjunction with ISA Expo, an annual technology-focused conference, exhibition, and training event, and a part of its Automation Career Connection activities. iAU2M8.09 serves as an educational outreach component to create an awareness of careers in automation.

In 2008, more than 400 middle and high school students, teachers, administrators, and chaperones combined attended this event at Reliant Center in Houston.

Program highlights include:

  • Presentations from real-world automation professionals about the importance of their cool jobs in automation."
  • Experience and participation in interactive, educational displays, and demonstrations related to Automation.
  • Participating in the ISA Expo show floor among nearly 300 exhibitors to see the latest products/services and how they relate to the real world of automation.
  • Gaining knowledge about a future career in automation.

As a prelude to these activities, the governor of Texas will proclaim Automation Week in the state, reinforcing the importance of automation and the professionals who play a critical part in it. In addition to the iAU2M8.09 student event, other Automation Career Connection and government-supported activities include business-education roundtable discussions by the US Chamber of Commerce, and a live webcast presentation by DoL aimed at the unemployed segment of the workforce, to get them focused on automation careers.

Automation Federation has a great partnership with the DoL, in the recent collaboration and creation of the Automation Competency Model.

Equally important is the support of multiple nonprofit, education, and industry segments serving as sponsors for the display portion of iAU2M8.09. These partners provide interactive, educational displays for student participants during the event, or as part of Education Alley, a select area on the ISA Expo show floor where colleges/universities can promote their curriculums as they relate to the automation/engineering or instrumentation fields.

There are many great examples of how partnerships work to meet the needs of the current and future workforce. The biggest obstacle sometimes is just getting to the table to start the conversation. However, once it starts, the benefits are bountiful for everyone involved, with the only challenge being to figure out where all the pieces fit.


This article was first published in the October 2009 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 10/1/2009

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