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Kentucky paves way for carmaker career training

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Kentucky’s automotive manufacturing industry is navigating a challenging workforce development crossroads.

The U.S. automobile market is poised for a fifth straight year of growth for just the second time since World War II, and demand for Kentucky-made vehicles is at an all-time high.

Ford employee Michael Thomas helps a row of 2010 Ford Explorers move through final assembly at the Louisville Assembly Plant in this file photo. AMTEC, the Automotive Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative founded by the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, seek to better prepare highly skilled technicians and manufacturing engineers for work in automobile manufacturing and technology.
Ford employee Michael Thomas helps a row of 2010 Ford Explorers move through final assembly at the Louisville Assembly Plant in this file photo. AMTEC, the Automotive Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative founded by the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, seek to better prepare highly skilled technicians and manufacturing engineers for work in automobile manufacturing and technology.

As of August, Kentucky auto production was ranked third in the nation with more than 657,000 vehicles produced and the commonwealth is on pace to crush last year’s production tally of more than 1 million vehicles.

That’s great news for Kentucky’s four automobile assembly plants and more than 400 auto parts suppliers. The caveat: As more jobs are added and as baby boomers retire, finding skilled workers to take their place can be somewhat of a challenge.

Enter the Automotive Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative. Founded by the  Kentucky Community and Technical College System, AMTEC is a collaboration of community and technical colleges and industry partners in 14 states that seek to better prepare highly skilled technicians and manufacturing engineers for work in automobile manufacturing and technology. Under the AMTEC umbrella are career pathways to fit unique needs of students and employers, shared best practices and educational models, college curriculum aligned with industry-endorsed skills, and industry-endorsed certification assessments. In 2009, AMTEC became a National Center for Excellence in Advanced Auto Manufacturing.

“The larger impact of AMTEC/KCTCS is multifold as we continue to work with our governmental, educational and economic development communities,” said Danine Alderete-Tomlin, executive director of Kentucky Center of Excellence in Advanced Automotive Manufacturing. “We will continue to improve our industrial mechatronics curriculum and assessment tools, partner with colleges to meet the multi-skilled technician gap across the manufacturing spectrum (not just in the automotive sector), research and highlight best practices throughout the nation and internationally, if necessary, to spur educational innovation and create sustainable career pathways for mechatronics technicians into advanced degrees as they progress through their career.”

The collaboration began in 2003, said Timothy Burcham, vice president of KCTCS and executive director of KCTCS Foundation Inc. Officials at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky in Georgetown assessed the plant’s workforce projection numbers a decade ago and realized TMMK would face a potential large shortage of skilled workers in 2013, when many of its long-term employees would become eligible to retire.

“We began discussions with them about how to build a pipeline of replacements,” Burcham said. “That led to them giving us financial support to create the Kentucky Center of Excellence in Automotive Manufacturing. We pulled together all of the various pieces of our curriculum that have anything to do with the production process of a car, and that led to a National Science Foundation grant of $5.5 million in 2005.”

Ultimately, the grant led to the formation of AMTEC. TMMK formed its own Automotive Manufacturing Technician training program on its Scott County campus in conjunction with Lexington’s Bluegrass Community and Technical College, part of the 16-member KCTCS system. The program is customized to TMMK, but it is derived from and similar to AMTEC.

AMTEC students at dozens of schools work with a wide variety of auto manufacturing facilities – such as Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich., and Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn. – in several states using a standardized curriculum endorsed by the automotive industry. Manufacturers partner directly with local community colleges to create a clear career pathway with specific skills and proficiencies – some of which cross over into other manufacturing jobs.

For AMT students at TMMK, the two-year program is very site-specific and has almost a 100 percent success rate of job placement. Toyota recently announced plans to move production of the Lexus ES 350 from Japan to TMMK –  a $531 million investment that will create 750 new jobs. The new production line, combined with a large group of employees nearing retirement, has made the AMT program even more crucial to the plant’s success.

Dennis Parker, part of the management team at Toyota’s North American Production Support Center, played an important role in getting the program started and is an expert in advanced manufacturing training. AMT is designed to attract stellar students into the program, an internship and a job at Toyota, he said.

“We don’t think classrooms are very productive learning environments,” he said. “What we think is much more effective is a classroom that emulates the working area. The place of learning should look, feel and operate like a place of work so we created a special campus at Toyota and there are no classrooms.”

AMTEC nationally recognized

The program is so effective that just this summer, it was honored with the National Career Pathways Network’s Career Pathways Partnership Excellence Award.

Stepping into the BCTC campus at Toyota looks almost like it would at the plant just across the street – it’s complete with robots, computers, and all kinds of high-tech gadgets to get students workforce ready.

It is a win-win for everyone involved. BCTC gets an incredibly unique and cutting-edge program that no other school has, a new crop of students who otherwise may not have attended the school, and a chance to influence workforce-ready educational programs on a larger scale. And Toyota gets skilled workers ready to hit the ground running.

AMTEC aims to replicate that success on a larger, national scale. The program’s original 2005 goals are to develop workforce standards for maintenance technicians, develop competency measurement tools, prepare the workforce to be globally competitive, increase productivity and develop a worker pipeline for the future. A vast network of partnerships – some of which begin in elementary schools – benefits students, employers and schools alike.

Kentucky has a strong showing in the programs.

“All of the colleges that surround the manufacturing sites in Kentucky – South Central (Bowling Green) and Jefferson in Louisville for Ford – are intricately involved in helping those manufacturers with training,” Burcham said. “Not all of the programs are as specific as Toyota is at AMT. Overall, the story is more about what the automotive manufacturing environment is doing to prepare its workforce. It is a national movement through AMTEC to align curriculum that automotive manufacturers as a group agree is necessary to hire workers.”

In some cases, it spurs growth at the community colleges involved. KCTCS is building a new facility a short distance from Toyota so the program there can be expanded.

“In that facility we will be able enroll up to 1,200 students, and offerings would be made available throughout the region to other manufacturers, not just Toyota,” Burcham said. “There are similar skill sets with partner industries.”

Bowling Green Technical College partnered last year with General Motors in creating a FANUC certified robotics training center. The partnership brings to Bowling Green the state’s only FANUC certified center, providing critical professional development to current, expanding and new businesses.

GM Corvette Assembly recently completed a $131 million renovation and is adding up to 250 workers. GM officials are happy that the training of their employees will be handled at a world-class training center located at the BGTC Transpark campus, just five miles from the plant.

AMTEC education, an associate degree program, gives students a broad range of skills, including program logic control, electricity, robotics, welding and more – almost like the liberal arts of manufacturing. The theories and  skills can transfer almost anywhere.

‘We are central to their success’

“We are so closely connected to industry in all respects, not just automotive,” Burcham added. “These days we are so central to their success because of the sheer demographics. We know how many high school students are being produced at the same time you have this huge exodus of baby boomers in retirement ages. It’s an exciting time for us and a very stressful time for us.”

The ultimate goal for all involved? A more competitive workforce.

“… The added benefit is that we are building manufacturers with skill sets that any industry would be happy to have,” Alderete-Tomlin said. “We specialize in industry-endorsed curriculum and assessments … There is a lot of national interest in what we’re doing. Colleges don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel if they have something vetted by industry.”

And for the students, there is an automatic career pathway with AMTEC and a chance to be educated with no student debt. AMTEC even is reaching out to young populations, with a high school model in Texas, and events such as robotics camps for kids, Alderete-Tomlin said.

AMTEC is set to increase its industry partners by at least three this year alone, and ultimately hopes to become nationwide.

Abby Laub is a special publications editor for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected].