Facing what they say is a dearth of qualified technical talent, manufacturers have been forced to get creative in developing their own internal training programs.
But despite those efforts to fill the gap, companies still rely heavily on community colleges to train the next wave of workers.
That’s led to an influx of grant dollars and outside investment in community colleges to grow their manufacturing programs.
For example, Muskegon Community College (MCC) is in the process of developing its new $20 million Downtown Applied Technology Center, which is slated to open in Muskegon next year.
MCC has already invested $1.4 million of a $4.1 million Community College Skilled Trades Equipment Program (CCSTEP) grant awarded in 2015 to install robotics and other technology at the 80,000-square-foot facility.
“The new building will be a show building with people being able to see in and what goes on in a manufacturing environment,” said Dan Rinsema-Sybenga, dean of workforce and talent development at MCC. “We think it’s going to be a great opportunity to highlight the importance of manufacturing in the Muskegon area and show on a daily basis that you can get trained in a field where there are high-paying jobs.”
In conjunction with the new facility, MCC also expanded its partnerships with local manufacturers to develop training programs, said Rinsema-Sybenga. The institution recently added a pattern-maker certificate and manufacturing automation certificate to support hiring needs at Muskegon Heights-based Anderson Global Inc. and Alcoa Howmet of Whitehall, respectively.
Alcoa also provided a $70,000 grant for a computer-aided design lab and $30,000 to help fund a robotics lab at the downtown center.
Likewise, Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC) has been busy putting its $3.6 million CCSTEP grant to use by investing $2.8 million in new equipment, including CNC machines, 3-D printing, injection molding and other emerging technology.
Tom Buszek, dean of instruction, business and industrial trades at KVCC, said the community college has made developing its CNC machining program a top priority.
“Right now, there is a strong need for CNC machinists statewide and nationally,” Buszek said. “We’re trying to address that issue in a number of ways not only with academic programs but also supporting apprenticeship programs companies are working with. We’re trying to address the CNC shortage through as many avenues as we can.”
Despite the advances in manufacturing programing at community colleges, educators still see their largest challenge coming from parents and students who don’t perceive manufacturing as a viable career path.
“It’s a perception problem from parents and counselors that are still thinking in the mindset that you have to go to a four-year college, and there are just so many things you can do here with great careers that only take two years,” Buszek said.
To help combat this perception issue, Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) has invested $88,000 from its $4.1 million Michigan Coalition for Advanced Manufacturing grant into a mobile manufacturing lab that it plans to showcase at high schools in West Michigan starting this spring.
“Students can come in and help design a tool or a part, prototype it with a 3-D printer and then they can use the lathe and the mill to precision machine it,” said Julie Parks, director of workforce development at GRCC. “We have a virtual welder where they could see how to weld parts together and really start to give them an idea of different manufacturing processes and hopefully attract them to the great jobs in manufacturing.”
GRCC is also working with high schools along the lakeshore to develop a “middle college” program where students would graduate with an associate degree in manufacturing machine tooling in conjunction with their high school diploma, said GRCC President Steven Ender.
Overall, educators remain optimistic about students entering the manufacturing industry, despite the perception issues it faces.
“These jobs are not going away,” said Buszek of KVCC. “There’s a tremendous demand for them and they can lead to really high-paying careers.”