After years of heavy job loss, domestic manufacturing is making a comeback in the United States. From 2012 to 2017, manufacturing added nearly one million jobs, a number of which are increasingly high-tech. However, a significant portion of the manufacturing workforce is nearing retirement—and there aren’t enough young workers prepared to fill these vacancies. Many aren’t even aware of the opportunities in this sector.
That’s where Columbus State Community College comes in. Eight years ago, the Columbus, Ohio-based institution recognized this problem of a talent shortage within manufacturing—and did something about it.
Columbus State collaborated with the local Honda manufacturing plant to develop the Modern Manufacturing Work-Study program. Together, Honda and Columbus State meticulously designed the rigorous academic program to equip students with the high-paying skills Honda needed. The program is based on the college’s Electro-Mechanical Engineering Technology degree, and gives students the knowledge and skills “used in industries from manufacturing, to environmental control, to food and pharmaceutical production, to automated warehousing.”
The hugely successful program has turned Columbus State into a talent pipeline for Honda. It’s a magnificent win for the company, the college, and the hundreds of students that gained interest in local production jobs.
Below, we interview Stacia Edwards, a dean at Columbus State, to discuss some of the important nuances of the college’s program and what has made it so successful.
Interview With Columbus State
Emsi: Tell us how the new manufacturing program got started.
Stacia Edwards: The conversation kicked off eight years ago. Honda was very proactive. They recognized that they had an aging and highly experienced workforce, which meant that hiring people with basic skills to replace them wasn’t going to work. After all, this isn’t someone working on the production line. This is a trouble-shooting position with a view of the entire plant. The skills and wages are significantly higher than those of a production line job.
Emsi: How did you determine what skills to offer in the curriculum?
SE: Similar to our approach with other industries, Columbus State faculty worked directly with Honda to figure out the skills they needed: a lot of electromechanical and math skills. These technical skills were the game changer; they made the education highly relevant. The program is built on a work/study model, and by the time the first students started working with their mentors after just one year of coursework, they had the equivalent of four years of Honda training.
Emsi: Do any of the skills transfer to other industries or other areas within manufacturing?
SE: Yes! That’s the coolest thing, from my perspective. The program equips students with foundational electrical and mechanical skills and provides them with the opportunity to apply the skills under the supervision of a mentor. That’s the key—the right education combined with work-based application and learning.
Since then, the college has received an Advanced Technological Education (ATE) grant from National Science Foundation to expand the program to additional employers. Students in the modern manufacturing program, as it is now called, adapt really well. Currently, more than 22 companies participate in the program and they all find that the students add significant value to their company.
Emsi: What limitations do you see in the data? If you were to develop a program solely based off labor market data, how might that skew the skills you offer?
SE: I don’t hesitate to say this: the staffing patterns are wrong. We’re still trying to make decisions based on an archaic taxonomy. Staffing patterns assign job names so outdated or generic, they’re no longer helpful, calling them something like “mechanical engineers” that traditionally requires a bachelor’s degree when in reality, the job is so much more nuanced than that.
For example, Siemens and Lockheed Martin have designed similar programs to ours alongside other community colleges, but I can guarantee you that each company calls the target occupation by a different name.
I tried to measure demand for our new program by analyzing data a few years ago. It wasn’t enough. I had to look outside the data. Only direct conversations with Honda and the other local manufacturing companies revealed the true need. That’s the sweet spot: data plus employer conversations.
Emsi: What education level do your students need to get hired?
SE: Just an associate’s degree. But students may then complete their bachelor’s degree through tuition-assistance programs, which many of the companies will pay for. After all, the trends are still true: The higher your skills and education, the higher your salary.
A variety of opportunities await these students. A large manufacturing plant like Honda is a city; it has many different departments and career paths. We don’t expect these graduates to stay in the same job their entire career; some may pursue additional education in marketing, finance, or IT. But wherever they go, their background from the modern manufacturing program will continue to make them more marketable. They’re also valuable in multiple industries outside the manufacturing plant.
Emsi: Is it hard to attract students to the program?
SE: No! That’s why I’m so excited to work at Columbus State. We’ve got demand from multiple employers and demand from students. We aren’t fighting the typical manufacturing stigma. At our first public forum to market the new program several years ago, less than 50 people showed up. At our last forum, it was standing room only—300 people. Our first class had three students, then we jumped to 25. We hope to be at 100 students in the very near future.
Emsi: How do you market to prospective students?
SE: We have three techniques. First, we do a really good job telling the story of those initial graduates. One of them was Anton de la Fuente—I’ll never forget him. His journey was difficult, because the program requires a 20-hour work week plus full-time school. But when he graduated, he got hired. He started making money. He purchased a car. He didn’t have debt. And he was barely 20 years old. Now he’s telling his story, and we’re telling his story.
Second, Honda joins us when we tell Anton’s story to high school students. So when we announce, “We have this fantastic program,” and then Honda adds, “We hired Anton, and here’s how much money he makes, and we need more workers just like him”—the impact is incredible. There’s a lot of momentum because people believe in the value of this degree.
Third, we changed our messaging. We realized we sounded desperate—begging people to come. Now, we tell prospective students: “This is an exclusive program. You will need to qualify. Get ready to work really hard. Think about whether you’re capable.” It’s human nature to be attracted to an honest challenge like that. Anything you have to sweat for is worth more.
Emsi: To wrap it up, what would you tell students considering programs like this?
SE: Education really matters. If you want skills that pay well and transfer easily into other jobs, you need great foundational skills. So get a degree in something that gives you a solid base. Start working. Then build on that. Education, education, education!
Honda is hiring workers based on the same factor we used in our analysis: skills. This is yet another reason to step outside traditional data and analyze the top skills gathered from job postings in order to measure demand, wages, and related opportunities for any industry. Everyone benefits. When colleges understand the skills that employers are looking for, they create the right programs, companies hire the right talent, and students land amazing jobs.