Brawn to Brains: Skills are the future of manufacturing

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You may have heard that manufacturing jobs are a thing of the past. While it’s true that old-fashioned assembly line jobs are dwindling, a new kind of manufacturing job is starved for skilled workers.

Today, more than 60 percent of manufacturing employees have at least some college education, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce report. And a 2011 report from the Manufacturing Institute estimates that 600,000 skilled manufacturing jobs currently are unfilled because employers can’t find qualified workers.

As a result jobs such as skilled machinists, equipment operators, welders and technicians go begging.

manufacturingMitchell Sepaugh who teaches in the industrial automation program at Cleveland Community College in Shelby, N.C., says that automation is what is driving modern manufacturing. “We live in a push button world, but automation is what makes pushing the button work,” he says. “There will always be a need for workers who can program, manage and repair devices.”


Some of the modern manufacturing jobs in demand are technical, such as CNC programmers, robotics technicians and industrial machinery mechanics. These workers are the brains behind the machines.

At Applied Manufacturing Technologies in Orion, Mich., a company that designs and programs automated equipment for manufacturers, 10 new employees with skills in computer-controlled manufacturing were hired just this year. “And we would have hired 10 more if we could have found them,” says Diane Haig, the company’s chief knowledge officer.

These jobs typically require an associate’s degree that provides a foundation of computer or mechanical skills.


Others jobs in demand, such as machinists and welders, required skilled workers who can perform intricate, custom work.

In Saginaw, Mich., Merrill Technologies manufactures parts for the solar, wind, gas and oil drilling and defense industries. They routinely have openings for up to 20 CNC machinists that they wish they could fill.

“We have had to turn work away in the past,” says co-owner Jeff Yackel. “We have machines sitting idle because we don’t have operators.”

Welders and machinists usually earn a certificate or associate’s degree to acquire the skills they need. Welders must learn a range of techniques for welding a variety of metals. And machinists learn to create and use CAD blueprints and operate lathes and milling machines to produce prototypes.


Important basics

Even entry-level jobs in advanced manufacturing are difficult to fill. In Mooresville, N.C., NGK Ceramics USA, a supplier of emission control equipment for auto and diesel manufacturers, anticipates hiring more than 80 employees for entry-level jobs, says J. Todd Alexander, director of administration.

Basics such as mechanical aptitude, problem solving skills and good communication are among the qualities they’re seeking in candidates.

As a result, community colleges around the country such as Mitchell Community College in Statesville, N.C., are partnering with local industries to offer short-term training to prepare students for these jobs.

Laura Lyjak Crawford with interviews provided by Cleveland Community College, Delta Community College, Mitchell Community College and Washtenaw Community College.

West Virginia Northern Responds to Gas Industry


Click to watch video on Mechantronics Program

West Virginia Northern Community College continues to provide a number of programs to help prepare individuals for employment related to the rapidly expanding natural gas industry.  In addition, Northern is planning several new programs during the coming year to support the industry.

Northern offered two RigPass safety courses on the New Martinsville campus for individuals wishing to be floor hands for drilling operations. Offered in partnership with the Greater New Martinsville Chamber of Commerce and Pierpont Community and Technical College, the courses taught participants basic safe working practices for working on drilling sites.

Working with CB&I and Dominion Transmission, Northern offered a 180-hour pipefitter helper program. The program for the petrochemical construction industry was specifically targeted to address workforce needs in the construction of the Dominion fractionating plant in Natrium, Marshall County, by CB&I. The highly successful program had 73 graduates.

Many of the industries associated with the oil and gas industry need qualified welders. In response to this need, Northern has offered basic welding classes on the Wheeling campus. In the spring, Northern will offer an advanced welding class which will provide instruction in pipe welding skills.

With completion of a new state-of-the-art lab on the Weirton campus, Northern implemented a Mechatronics program which has applications to multiple industries associated with the oil and gas industry. The program is a blend of electrical, mechanical and instrumentation skills with a heavy emphasis on programmable logic controllers. Graduates of this program will be able to find employment in the plants being constructed throughout the region to process and distribute the natural gas and various derivatives of the wet gas.

Northern, Pierpont Community and Technical College in Fairmont, and the West Virginia Community College System currently are working with a number of the oil and gas employers to develop a program in petroleum technology. The program will be implemented in the fall and features extensive, hands-on training. Individuals will learn various aspects of drilling and production of natural gas and petroleum liquids from the shale gas fields in Appalachia.

Completion of the Applied Technology Center in the former Straub properties at the downtown Wheeling campus also provides opportunities for Northern to offer training related to the oil and gas industry. The new facility will feature labs for Mechatronics, welding and the new petroleum technology program. In addition, a lab for diesel mechanics technology will be included in the new facility.

At WVNCC, Mike Koon is a veteran administrator who currently holds the dual titles of vice president of workforce development and Weirton campus dean.

Mike Koon

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