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The High Value of the Right Skills

Kentucky-based AMTEC brings together industry and education to increase profitability

By Debra Gibson Isaacs

Derek Albertson became a 2015 graduate of the AAS Industrial Maintenance Technology program at Somerset Community Technical College.
Derek Albertson became a 2015 graduate of the AAS Industrial Maintenance Technology program at Somerset Community Technical College.

Companies averaged a savings of $400,000 annually per technician, or six times a technician’s average salary, when they employed “precision” maintenance technicians and engaged precision maintenance practices, according to a recent report from the University of Tennessee Knoxville-Reliability and Maintainability Center (UT-RMC). Additionally, these advanced technical maintenance skills and properly trained technicians helped avoid about 50 percent of human-error-generated issues.

It’s no secret that a skilled workforce can make a significant difference in profitability. It sounds simple and obvious, but in reality hiring truly qualified candidates is anything but easy or automatic. Research on the impact of properly trained employees is also scarce.

Enter Danine Alderete-Tomlin, executive director of the Automotive Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative housed at the Kentucky Community and Technical Colleges System (KCTCS) office in Versailles. She is intent on helping companies increase both the number of highly skilled technicians as well as the extent of research done on the subject.

Alderete-Tomlin spends her fast-paced days at AMTEC, which is a National Science Foundation ATE Center of Excellence, working with partners – companies are industry partners; community and technical colleges, universities and secondary schools are education partners. She and her colleagues are the middle in which both ends of a variety of partnerships meet. AMTEC helps industry define and refine the set of skills needed to perform each job. Simultaneously, it shares this data with educators, helping them tweak curricula to prepare students who will ultimately fill those jobs.

Originally AMTEC focused solely on better preparing highly skilled mechatronics technicians for automotive manufacturers. Today AMTEC also works with other industries, although the automotive industry remains the primary client.

The final product is two-fold: industry-vetted maintenance certification assessments that pinpoint the precise range of skills needed for a variety of jobs and college curricula aligned to industry-led skills standards.

The early years

Back in 2005 when AMTEC began, neither was available.

“A small group of college presidents came together, including Dr. Keith Bird, who was then chancellor of KCTCS,” Alderete-Tomlin said.  “They found that technicians were not graduating with the right skill sets. They weren’t coming out skilled enough to handle industry demands.”

Likewise, industry knew the general skills needed but had not refined a list of the particular skill sets needed to succeed in each job.

AMTEC then formally began with a planning grant to establish if colleges and companies across state lines would come together to benefit the development of the future automotive manufacturing workforce. There was enough interest during the first year that the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded AMTEC a three-year project grant. AMTEC facilitated collaboration that occurred college-to-college, college-to-industry, and industry-to-industry. 

AMTEC was granted a one-year extension in 2009 to complete its objectives, and on Sept. 15, 2009, AMTEC became a National Center for Excellence in Advanced Automotive Manufacturing.

This was before other programs were developed.

“Before there was Kentucky FAME, before the Toyota AMT model, we were convening partners to research apprentice models and pathways,” Alderete-Tomlin said. “We had toured General Motors, researched, and overviewed current programs and apprentice models.”

A lot has changed since then.

“We are all now speaking the same language. Educators don’t have to guess anymore,” Alderete-Tomlin said. “Colleges can build their own degree tracks or certificates. Everything is still flexible enough. We just accelerate the colleges’ ability to ramp up the offerings in technical specialties.”

For the companies AMTEC works with, there are four overarching needs:

• Uniquely trained employees.

• Increasingly flexible and lean manufacturing to meet fluctuating customer demands.

• A growing focus on green and sustainable manufacturing.

• Rapidly changing technology.

Toyotetsu in Somerset is a good example.

Just over a year ago, Richard Snowden, skilled trade training specialist for Toyotetsu America, hired AMTEC to do assessment testing for maintenance and engineers.

“They are finding where our training gaps are and developing focused training for individuals, groups and engineering teams in North America,” Snowden said. “We have more than 19 categories and themes in different locations. They are providing focused training – online, written and hands-on.”

Snowden said the result has been “wonderful.”

“Competition is tough, and technology is growing so rapidly that we need the best of the best,” he said. “There are a lot of good vendors that do what AMTEC does, but AMTEC is automotive-focused. We get great benefit from that because we’re automotive, and everything is based for automotive manufacturing.

“Somerset Community and Technical College, by chance, also uses AMTEC for skilled training in industrial maintenance and applied maintenance. That makes for a natural partnership with us.”

What stands out for Snowden, however, is the way AMTEC does business.

“They are always asking what we need,” he said. “Others are saying, ‘Here is what we offer. If it’s not in the package, sorry.’

“Every year there are two or three significant changes in the gear used in automotive manufacturing,” he said. “Programmable logic controllers were a recent one. Different companies use different brands. AMTEC offers us a chance to train on the exact brands and products we use. This year we are building a plant in Mexico. Ninety-nine percent of the people there speak Spanish. AMTEC offered to translate the assessment-testing portion in Spanish for a low, low cost.”

Potential employees also benefit from their association with AMTEC, according to Snowden.

“In July, AMTEC rolled out a pre-screening program for us in machine maintenance,” he said. “We know exactly what skills we need and where our gaps are. This makes it fair and consistent for all the applicants to get through recruiters. The pre-screening has 187 questions and can take up to three hours. It generates great reports. In just a few minutes, we can see if a person is good, just average, or if he bombed. It is very fair and consistent for applicants, too. We aren’t swayed by personality or what’s on a resume. Anyone can put anything on a resume.”

On this morning, Alderete-Tomlin and several colleagues are meeting with executives from Amazon. The questions and answers fly back and forth across the table like mental badminton birdies as both teams learn about each other’s needs and resources. You can almost watch the possibilities of collaboration start to gel in each person’s mind as the conversation continues. Amazon is growing exponentially – including a planned first-ever Amazon Prime distribution hub in Northern Kentucky – necessitating the need to refine its employment process. AMTEC has become a leader in delivering truly competency based, nationally standardized modularized curriculum.

This discussion mirrors how AMTEC grew.

“Education used to be ‘siloed’ into categories,” Alderete-Tomlin said. “Now we are hearing that employers need numerous skill sets in one graduate. We are building the kinds of courses that industry needs.”

AMTEC goes to high school

AMTEC is now also working with high schools.

A new partnership in Washington state gave students the opportunity to work in a local industry for $15-$21 an hour.

“These are inner city kids,” she said. “More than 85 percent live in poverty, and 10 percent are homeless. They never had access to these types of jobs before the partnership with AMTEC.”

In fact, Alderete-Tomlin said, this student success is what she is most proud of.

“I could do back flips,” she said. “For example, at Somerset Community College the first graduate of the AMTEC collaboration bought his first car and his first house. He is esteemed by industry partners. This will have a positive impact on their lives forever.”

Research also matters

Meanwhile, AMTEC pursues its second goal of increasing research on the tie between training and company profitability.

AMTEC hired Dr. Klaus Blache at the University of Tennessee Knoxville-Reliability and Maintainability Center (UT-RMC) to research and find an answer to the impact of skilled maintenance technicians in the workplace. Blache and his staff provide advanced technical education, research and process-improvement assistance to companies throughout the world. They also work with maintenance technicians, plant engineers and manufacturing leaders to educate and improve manufacturing, technical and engineering processes. The UT-RMC team conducted this research from their large database and project records.

“The findings are quite surprising, unscripted and provide solid evidence for the economic and educational impact that investments in advanced technical education have made for our manufacturing industry,” Alderete-Tomlin said.  “A community college, technical college or university that graduates 15 highly skilled precision maintenance technicians a year has the ability to positively impact their industry by $6 million dollars a year on the high end or $450,000 on the low end of the study range.”

That is a bottom line that industry and educators can agree on, but not one that will remain static. As Alderete-Tomlin said: “We are constantly making changes. We are always questioning when something needs to be updated and vetted. This is a continuous improvement process.”

Debra Gibson Isaacs is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected].