A Fresh Start For Manufacturing Training?

Aug 6, 2012

State estimates say there may be as many as a thousand unfilled jobs in advanced manufacturing currently available in Connecticut. As our series continues on education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, we look at how the state is preparing the workers who will take this industry forward. WNPR’s Harriet Jones reports.

This is the precision manufacturing program at Asnuntuck Community College.

“What we’re listening to now is, we’re listening to people who are out in the lab.”

Instructor Chris Foster has taught here for the last 5 years, after a 30 year career in industry. This lab contains older, manual milling machines still seen at smaller job shops, and the more modern computer numerical control or CNC machines, most widely used in the industry right now. And it looks just like a typical shopfloor. But across the hall, in a space you could imagine was a coffee break room, sits something you might mistake for a vending machine.

“This is the rapid prototype area, and what we have in here is an older Dimension SST768, which will take a simple file and it’ll take it and turn it into a three dimensional part – it’s a three dimensional printer.”

This machine starts with a technical drawing from a computer file and can make a part complete, from start to finish. Foster says it’s the hottest thing in advanced manufacturing right now.

“We’ve got Boeing, we’ve got an awful lot of really big companies that are using this for a lot of parts right now, and they’re not just using it for rapid prototyping -- they’re making full-on production.  So this is here, and this is exponentially going to grow in the not too distant future.”

But this machine itself illustrates the difficulties inherent in training a technologically literate workforce.

“Our machine here is five years old and totally obsolete. This machine could be replaced right now for $20,000, and yes,$20,000 is a lot of money, but what this is going to return to people in the teaching and the learning curve, it’s really unbelievably good technology to be teaching.”

As well as the sheer cost of keeping up with industry, there’s the disconnect between college life, and real life.

“We are breaking all the rules with regard to semesters, we are breaking all the rules with regard to the numbers of hours students participate.”

Frank Gulluni founded this program in 1998 and has run it ever since. It’s amazing to him that most colleges’ expensive assets lie idle for as many as 20 weeks of the year. Asnuntuck’s doors are open 50 weeks a year, and its students work at least 30 hours a week.

“To have them here 30 to 35 hours really sets them up for the workforce environment, because that’s the reality – they’re going to go to work. And there’s not this situation of three hours today and three hours on Wednesday and two hours on Friday.”

Just who those students are might surprise you too – as well as regular college students in their late teens and early twenties, they include workers who’ve been laid off and are learning new skills, high school students looking for a taste of a future career, and significantly, around 500 workers each year who already have careers in manufacturing.

“We work with the Aerospace Components Manufacturers, which is a consortium of 76 companies around the state, employ about six thousand people. We do major contracting with companies like Pratt & Whitney and Sikorsky, and in fact for all intents and purposes we do most of Pratt & Whitney’s apprenticeship training.”

Gulluni says he sees this training of current workers as his most important mission.

“Because it is they, these men and women who are in the workforce presently that will present and provide for a future workforce. If they are not trained and upgraded on a continuing basis, there won’t be a future workforce.”

Gulluni is now leading an $18 million state-sponsored effort to replicate Asnuntuck’s success at three other community colleges around the state. That’s the beginning of a more coordinated approach to the advanced manufacturing workforce, but Connecticut still has a lot to learn from other states..

“I’m Vearl Turnpaugh from Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana.”

Ivy Tech is Indiana’s unified community college system, with 30 campuses around the state. In 2006 it started an innovative new program. All the schools in the system teach the same courses in the same way. Students come out of the program with a nationally recognized qualification. And, Turnpaugh says, they're asking questions that some colleges in Connecticut aren't.

"Do we need changes in our curriculum? It’s a constant game of looking an analyzing and trying to close the feedback loop.”

In fact Ivy Tech changes its manufacturing courses every two years to more closely meet the needs of industry. Turnpaugh says the changes are overseen by local companies.

“We worked directly with them on the remap of the machine tool program. They’ve basically come back to us with i n the first year and sa i d we don’t understand why we weren’t mapping to the certifications in the first place.”

Jerry Klupper is director of the New Haven Manufacturers Association. He says the state badly needs these national standards.

“If we can do a credentialed manufacturing workforce, where people have portable skill certificates that they can take anywhere, to any job interview, then the manufacturers will have a better opportunity to evaluate and to hire people that are appropriate for what jobs they have available.”

These national certifications aren’t yet standard across community colleges in Connecticut, but they are being piloted in the vo-tech school system, which this year aimed to graduate students with at least three certifications in different skills. John Murphy is educational consultant to the state’s vo-tech system. He says one of the benefits has been a closer tie to industry.

“Starting in grade 10 companies can begin to see the quality of work and actually follow a student through 10th Grade, 11th Grade, 12th Grade and really see them grow as a craftsman.”

Jesus Montoavo is one the students who graduated this year from A. I. Prince Tech in Hartford.

Here, he’s presenting the work his class has been doing, to students gathered for a manufacturing careers fair at Tunxis Community College. Montoavo is headed to UConn now, where he will study engineering, but he says in the meantime, he’s already working at a machining company in Windsor.

“They gave me a job and they weren’t even hiring at the moment. I started working there and they seen the capabilities that I had from running CNC machines to helping engineers. A couple days later, she goes – well, you’re hired – and she told me, well, we don’t have a job position, but we’ll make you one.”

That’s the outcome Connecticut would like to see for every student currently training to work in manufacturing, if the state can muster the coordination and the investment that’s vitally needed.

For WNPR, I'm Harriet Jones.