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Technology bump is affecting manufacturing educators, too

Seniors Sean Varner, left, and Benjamin Ceresini assemble a basic pneumatic circuit, a training exercise in the electro-mechanical engineering technology program at Lancaster County Career and Technology Center's Mount Joy campus.
Seniors Sean Varner, left, and Benjamin Ceresini assemble a basic pneumatic circuit, a training exercise in the electro-mechanical engineering technology program at Lancaster County Career and Technology Center's Mount Joy campus. - (Photo / )

As manufacturing is changing, so is manufacturing education.

At Lancaster County Career & Technology Center, Assistant Executive Director Matthew Mann has been watching the process for more than 20 years. Much of the changes track the center's general evolution, as it went from a three-year, half-day schedule to a full-year senior one, and began matching training to career objectives more closely.

But, Mann said, one mechanics program — electromechanical engineering technology — stands out because of the complexity of the concepts and how quickly the technology is changing. Just staying current on the equipment needed to train the students is a challenge.

However, Mann said, those attributes also make that program vital. Plants increasingly run on sophisticated machinery, and manufacturers need people who can run those machines, program them and, most of all, troubleshoot and fix them when systems go down.

"You're talking about mechanical skills, electrical skills, basic computer networking," said Scott Sheely, executive director of Lancaster County Workforce Investment Board. "There's also what they call control technology or electronics, the sensors and the scanners and all that kind of stuff. What the companies want is all of those skill sets in one person, and they want that person to be an expert troubleshooter. They want one person to come in and look at it instead of four or five people."

Addressing new model

LCCTC doesn't teach just high school seniors; it also takes adult students and, particularly in electromechanical engineering technology, has contracts with local manufacturers.

"They send current employees in, and we update them on the newest systems out there," Mann said. "It's kind of like an apprenticeship program."

Until a couple of years ago, LCCTC called the program "mechatronics," and not many people knew what it meant. Since the name change, Mann said, enrollment in the program has been climbing steadily. For the last enrollment period, there were about 20 high school students and three or four adult students — without counting the industry training programs.

LCCTC's other manufacturing offerings are also in demand. With class sizes of 25 each, Mann said, sheet metal pretty much runs a full roster, and welding generally has 40 to 50 interested students.

"We are addressing the skills gap," Mann said.

Putting enough skilled workers in the pipeline is an ongoing struggle, particularly as jobs long held by baby boomers start to come open, but he believes LCCTC is headed in the right direction.

Building partnerships

At Harrisburg Area Community College, Daniel Wagner, managing director of workforce training, said the college has worked in partnership with Phoenix Contact and the Industrial Maintenance Training Council to set up the first federally approved mechatronics apprenticeship program in Pennsylvania.

"In the past, many companies hired entry-level workers with basic aptitude and then trained them through formal in-house training programs such as apprenticeship programs," Wagner said. "While the number of formal training programs has dropped off in the past years, HACC is seeing increasing interest from employers in setting up long-term training plans and restarting apprenticeship programs."

Wagner said mechatronics, with its focus on electronics and programming along with the standard electrical and mechanical skills, is "in demand across a wide range of industries, from the various food processing and packaging businesses in the Hanover area to the industrial manufacturers such as Harley-Davidson in York and Volvo in Shippensburg."

Other training that HACC provides that lines up with skills needed by local manufacturers includes programs on mechanical drives, motors and controls, electronics, hydraulics and pneumatics, programmable logic controllers, welding and machining — including automated computerized numerical control machining. And, Wagner said, HACC also addresses the "soft" skills gap that employers report in areas such as work ethic, communications, reliability and teamwork.

Expanding to meet demand

At Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, a $1 million matching pledge from the owners of Greiner Industries Inc. recently jump-started an expansion campaign. The college needs more space, spokesman Chad Baker said, to grow programs including machine-tooled technology, metals fabrication and welding.

"Currently, we bring 25 new students into each of those programs each year," Baker said, noting that with expansion the college could easily double its size. "Those are areas where we're seeing employers coming to us and wanting to take every one of our students come graduation. A lot of them have said, for multiple years now, we need to expand these programs. We need to be putting out more qualified people."

Closing the gap

Manufacturing training also encompasses educational institutions such as Penn State, where Timothy Simpson, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and engineering design, sees additive manufacturing — 3-D printing — as an industry changer. But, he said, the adoption process will almost certainly create gaps in research and training.

"I think they're very excited about it. They see a lot of opportunity, but a lot of them are still standing on the sidelines waiting to see where it's going to go," Simpson said of companies that he expects will one day use 3-D printing extensively.

Simpson also sees the possibility for further alteration of traditional training models.

"A lot of these machines are push-button now, so the apprenticeship model is different. You're apprenticing someone to learn how to do software, not to cut metal on a machine," he said, noting that he still considers hands-on experience critical even if the students won't ultimately end up using manual machines.

But, at the same time, the technology is making smaller batches economically possible, even down to individually customized parts, which means operators need to know a lot more than how to push the buttons.

"Every day is a different job, potentially," Simpson said. "The learning curve that we're used to operating on is different."

And then there are the facts that the cost of education is rising even as 3-D printers are becoming more affordable. Simpson said his department is starting to put together industry-focused short courses and talking about certificate programs.

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