Developing the Right Industry Focus

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Illustration by Mark Beauchamp

By Scott Sheely, Executive Director
Lancaster County Workforce Investment Board

Background

For many years employment in US manufacturing has been in sharp decline. Domestic manufacturers have scaled back, outsourced, or just plain closed down. As a result, US manufacturing has become the “less desirable” industry sector for many workforce boards, economic developers, training providers, and workers themselves. However, in recent times a number of various factors (technology improvements, “inshoring,” and a weak dollar, among others) have changed the face of domestic manufacturing, making it more profitable and productive. As a result, in some regions manufacturers are looking to hire and are having great difficulty finding good potential employees—even amidst high unemployment. This seems to indicate that while the general operations of many manufacturers have changed, the approach to training has not.

This is the situation in south central Pennsylvania, where, despite the recession, our manufacturing sector, which is represented by food processors, packagers, printers, wood products firms, and even biotech has remained very productive and in constant need of qualified employees.

So, as workforce developers, how can we get ourselves up-to-date and assist our ever-changing manufacturing sector? As a general rule, I have found that it’s a relatively simple process. First, be very familiar with the needs, wants, and activities of local industry and second, develop training that directly addresses their needs.

With this in mind, I want to talk a little bit more about how the Lancaster County Workforce Investment Board has been working to address the broad needs of our local manufacturing companies. The results of our efforts have led to significant improvements in the quality and the transferability of skills of our workforce, the satisfaction of our industries with the people we train, and the effectiveness of our investment of public money. I believe our findings could be particularly relevant and useful to many other communities struggling to know what to do about manufacturing.

Why Manufacturing?

Before I get to that, some of you might be wondering, “Why should we continue to focus on manufacturing?”

Here are a few reasons:

  • First, these industries are often the source of what I like to call “gold-collar jobs,” which are generally higher-skill, higher-wage, and high-demand occupations.
  • Second, these jobs tend to have high “ripple” or multiplier effects. Manufacturing is such a unique industry because it’s almost entirely an export industry. Its products/services are shipped to other regions, states and nations, and when that happens, money from those areas comes back into the local community. This is very important to the local economy because the outside dollars will be spent by the manufacturers on supplies, services, and wages that will drive employment in many other sectors—places like doctors’ offices, grocery stores, and city hall.
  • Finally, while it’s true that domestic manufacturing is scaling back on workers, it’s also true that the industry as a whole is becoming more efficient. This means that while employers might need fewer employees, the ones they keep will generally be responsible for more and as a result will be in much higher demand.

The big point here is that if we want to make the wisest investments in training that will lead to greater community prosperity, we need to focus on those sectors that drive money into the community, provide good employment, and are being demanded by the larger economy (i.e., sectors that export goods). Manufacturing is one of those region-driving sectors.

Finding and Understanding the Key Skill Sets

So to really help our local manufacturers we needed to get a better understanding of their skills needs. After many conversations, we generally found that they need people who are “broader-based,” with more troubleshooting abilities. This was interesting because it goes beyond the scope of more traditional machine operators or industrial maintenance occupations.  So we determined that manufacturers overwhelmingly need a skill set that can both service and maintain the increasingly sophisticated automated equipment that is driving domestic manufacturing.

Our research led us to a skill set called “mechatronics,” which has become a generally accepted occupation in Europe and is growing in recognition here in the states. So what is mechatronics? According to Keith Campbell, Project Manager for the Mid-Atlantic Mechatronics Advisory Committee and the Industrial Maintenance Center of Pennsylvania, mechatronics is “. . . the synergistic application of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, control engineering, and computer science to make useful products.” Mechatronics effectively expands the traditional skill sets of mechanical and electrical engineering found in industrial maintenance to include more high-tech skills commonly associated with electronics and computer networking.

We were very pleased to find this, but realized it would need to be refined to address the specific needs of our local employers. This refining involved three key steps.

First, we needed to understand how and why mechatronics was originally developed. While the Europeans coined the term, training for mechatronics in the United States has several origins. First, several years ago Amatrol, an Indiana-based curriculum development company, in partnership with the US Department of Labor and Midwestern companies, pioneered the development of an “Advanced Manufacturing Integrated System Technology” certificate to better address the skills needs of domestic manufacturers. The program was first implemented as a certificate and is now offered at more than a dozen Midwestern community colleges and several in Pennsylvania.

Next, we took this knowledge of how mechatronics was currently being used and meshed it with what we were learning locally. First, only a small percentage of the manufacturer’s employees actually find their way to the job through formal education. Most follow a career path from machine operator or an alternative path out of manufacturing trades such as millwright, machinist, or welder.  Second, local manufacturers were needing workers with more of a “systems view” into solving problems—essentially a multi-skilled problem-solver who could handle the four or more individual disciplines often needed to solve complicated machine operations problems and, in the process, reduce downtime, and increase productivity.

Finally, we took this info and worked with Reading Area Community College (RACC) to develop an associate’s degree in Mechatronics Engineering Technology (MET), one of the first of its kind in the United States. The new degree used the Advanced Manufacturing Integrated System Technology certificate as its credential and the Amatrol online curriculum as its base with a little additional region-specific content. Since we created the program, John DeVere, Dean of Workforce and Economic Development at RACC, has also developed a way to give academic credit for training that begins in the non-credit workforce education world for incumbent workers, dislocated workers, or emerging workers, and the Berks and Lancaster County Workforce Investment Boards have also created a consortium of 35-plus industry partners and secured funding to provide the training to incumbent employees at participating companies.

The Result

Since the program was implemented three years ago, 250-plus incumbent workers have been trained. We currently have about 35 dislocated workers enrolled in the program. The actual training is provided via online instruction and is followed by practice and evaluation in fully-equipped simulation laboratories at RACC and the Lancaster County Career and Technology Center.  Students from local high schools may also start the program in their senior year, using the articulations with RACC to get advanced standing at the community college. Finally, for the past year we have been using our ARRA funds to provide this in-demand training to a substantial number of dislocated workers.

Can it be Replicated?

As more and more people have become familiar with our success, many have asked if the program could be replicated. For help with this, we reached out to the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI). As an industry, packaging is one of the highest-volume users of automated equipment in the nation. PMMI was interested in our offer and helped to organized a meeting in Indiana to bring educators from Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, and North Carolina together to identify latest skills needs for the automation industries.

After the input was collected, PMMI and the Industrial Maintenance Training Center of Pennsylvania began working with the US Department of Labor to build a Mechatronics Competency Model as a part of the Competency Model Clearinghouse. That model defines competencies from basic skills in manufacturing to much more specific occupational skills such as mechatronics. It was approved and added to the Clearinghouse earlier in 2009.  See http://www.careeronestop.org/competencymodel/ for more information.

In the midst of all this, we realized that the mechatronics engineering technologist occupation had yet to be defined in the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system. So we contacted the Department of Labor and the folks who run O*NET, which is an occupational database operated by the US Department of Labor, to see what we could do to further inform their research and get this occupation officially recognized.

To build our case, we turned to Economic Modeling Specialists Inc. (EMSI), which helped to develop a definition of an MET. EMSI used information derived from existing profiles for industrial machinery mechanics, machinists, and electrical and electronic repairers of commercial and industrial equipment, and built a profile that includes mechanical, engineering, electronics, and information technology knowledge; troubleshooting, installation, repairing, and complex problem-solving skills; and abilities to visualize, communicate orally and in written form, and reason in complex situations. We think that this definition has really hit the nail on the head and are now in the process of validating the definition with industry experts.

In the process, one of our colleagues in Colorado noticed that the knowledge, skills, and abilities seemed to have a lot of similarities with other occupations—careers related to industrial maintenance, renewable energy, industrial operations technology, water quality management, and environmental engineering. We agreed and had EMSI compare the competencies of METs with more than 25 careers in these other industries.

What we found verified our gut feeling. The competencies of virtually every occupation were at least 80% compatible with the competencies of an MET.

Why is Mechatronics so Important?

We believe these findings are very significant for a number of reasons.

  • First, the training for METs has a very high degree of skill compatibility to a large and expanding pool of occupations in various fields (including green). This is very encouraging given the need to retrain and advise incumbents, dislocated workers, and new workers about solid job opportunities in tough economic times.
  • Second, the overlap of skills means that the curricula developed in our education and training could be used in multiple career paths and to support a wide range of occupations related to manufacturing industries. This means more career mobility for the trainees as they complete training.
  • Finally, because these data help educational programs address multiple career paths at the same time, workforce and education professionals can be much more sophisticated about how we talk with the users and potential users of education and training so that programs and skills are tweaked to meet the specific needs of regional industry.

With the help of EMSI, we have been able to add substantial depth to the work that we are doing in mechatronics. Our new understanding will allow us to use significant parts of the curriculum that we put into place over the last several years to develop new career paths leading to “gold-collar” jobs in our regional economy.

Illustration: Mechatronics Techs and Renewable Energy

To illustrate the value of a mechatronics tech’s skill level, the graphic provides a skills comparison between mechatronics techs (the colored bars) and a group of potential renewable energy occupations (HVAC, electricians, construction managers). For the most part the skills areas are highly compatible. The largest gaps mainly seem to be in the soft areas (management, customer service, oral and written expression), which would probably relate to the business aspect of the occupations. A large gap in the building and construction area makes sense.

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For more information, email Scott Sheely or call him at 717-735-0333.

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