Colleges are adding programs in a once decimated industry — manufacturing

Wes McEntee uses one of several manufacturing machines at Vermont Technical College. Photo by Oliver Parini for The Hechinger Report

By Delece Smith-Barrow

For VTDigger

With vertical mills, lathes and flat screen monitors at their disposal, members of Vermont Technical College’s Fabrication Club are hard at work in Morrill Hall.

Jacob Walker is stationed at a Dell computer working on a 3-D design for what will be a decorative stainless-steel maple leaf. To get from design to actual product involves using advanced computer software plus a waterjet, a traditional manufacturing machine.

Walker, 19, is in the school’s two-year mechanical engineering program, a first step on the road to study manufacturing in the college’s new bachelor’s degree program.

“You can learn to build something, but the manufacturing behind it to be able to produce it, I think that’s very important to have an understanding of how it works,” he says.

The students at Vermont Tech aren’t preparing to build products through physically demanding factory work as much as they are studying to up their technical skills. Manufacturing undergrads take classes in calculus, 3-D printing and a slew of other specialized subjects.

Manufacturing, which shed nearly a third of its workforce between 2000 and 2010, is rebounding as a solid path to the middle class. The industry has taken a more tech-intensive twist, making skills like practice in 3-D design — like the work Walker is doing — critical for future employment. Schools are taking notice.

Businesses are seeking workers whose profile is different from that of decades past, when a high school diploma was enough. As robots take over much of the manual labor in factories, the new jobs being created tend to require computer and engineering skills and advanced training.

That’s helped to fuel a boomlet of college investment in manufacturing programs.

Vermont Technical College, with campuses in Randolph and Williston, recently started a bachelor’s degree program in manufacturing engineering technology. Its first class — of nine students — graduated last June. This year’s graduating class has 11 students, and the school is planning for larger classes in the future, says Christopher Gray, assistant professor for manufacturing and mechanical engineering technology at the school. But getting teens and young adults to study manufacturing, an industry that may seem more gritty than glamorous, isn’t always easy, say industry experts.

During Manufacturing Processes 1, Gray guides about a dozen students as they work on fine-tuning basic manufacturing skills. Half the group is learning to turn items on a lathe and the other half is learning to use vertical milling machines.

There’s buzzing and whizzing and safety goggles and white boards.

Gray is on one side of the class with the lathe-turning students. “In an emergency how would you stop it right now?” he asks one as a lathe runs. Within seconds the student calmly powers off the machine, and Gray continues his rounds.

Most of these students are in their second year of school and studying automotive or diesel technology, Gray says, but the class is also for manufacturing majors.

Gray spends the nearly three-hour lab going from student to student, helping them with tasks like creating a piston and showing them how to safely and effectively use the manufacturing machines.

Every student is learning skills that can set them on a path to a manufacturing career. Students with the right training can work in a variety of areas, such as product design, operations management, welding, machining or engineering.

Vermont is looking to increase employment and production at manufacturing companies throughout the state. One such company, Logic Supply, a Vermont-based international business that builds computers, recently signed an agreement with the state to open a new manufacturing and warehouse facility, creating 83 new jobs by the end of 2020. In February 2017, the Vermont Economic Development Authority approved $7.1 million in economic development financing for manufacturing, agricultural, energy and small business projects. Through this program, Vermont’s Rhino Foods, for example, was approved for $294,176 in financing to purchase new machinery and equipment and other manufacturing needs.

“Right now, in the state of Vermont, I’d estimate there’s probably upwards of a thousand open positions in manufacturing that we can’t fill ’cause we just don’t have the people,” says Gray. “Anywhere you go, you can walk into a manufacturing company and they’re looking to hire.”

Manufacturing jobs can pay between $26,000 to more than $100,000, with those who earn a college degree more likely to command a competitive salary. “Most of my students will leave my courses and make more money than I make now,” says Gray.

Many of the fastest growing jobs in the state are in manufacturing, according to a 2016 report from Vermont’s department of labor. Nationwide, about 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled by 2025, according to a study by the consulting firm Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, a trade group.

A wave of baby boomer retirements in the industry — expected to total 2.7 million by 2025 — is contributing to that gap.

While some economists predict that automation will continue to wipe out manufacturing jobs, Reddy and others in the industry suggest that these technologies could actually generate employment. As robots help improve the efficiency and quality of products, Neil Reddy, executive director of the nonprofit Manufacturing Skills Standards Council, says demand will increase, leading to the opening of more plants.

But in Vermont, and around the country, getting more students to take manufacturing courses and work in this industry is a challenge.

“There’s not enough kids interested,” says Jeannine Kunz, vice president of tooling at U-SME, a branch of what was once called the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. “We need to grow the pipeline.”

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