Manufacturing Renaissance Hundreds of millions in grants help advanced-skills training gear up
By Steve Lynn
LONGMONT â€“ Until two years ago, Front Range Community College had no machinist shops to teach students the skills needed to work in cutting-edge high tech factories.
Another casualty of Americaâ€™s decline in manufacturing, the schoolâ€™s last machine shop in Fort Collins closed in 2008 due to a lack of jobs â€“ and a lack of students.
With the recent growth in advanced manufacturing in the U.S., George Newman, director of the Precision Manufacturing Technology Program, helped the school open the machinist-focused Advanced Technology Center at Front Rangeâ€™s campus in Longmont in 2013. The goal â€“ to train the smartest factory workers the U.S. has ever seen, who are tech savvy enough to guide sophisticated computerized machinery while earning in excess of $75,000 a year.
â€œWe take (students) in, we train them and we help them find employment,â€ Newman said.
Colleges and universities throughout the region have been rushing to prepare students for advanced manufacturing careers. The focus comes as the nationâ€™s business leaders and politicians call for an advanced manufacturing renaissance, bringing back jobs that U.S. lost to developing countries overseas beginning in the 20th Century. The evidence supports their claims of a manufacturing resurgence, albeit in a different form than the steel mills and textile plants that once propelled the nation into manufacturing dominance.
Employment growth in Coloradoâ€™s advanced manufacturing industries outpaced national growth by 4 percent from 2010 to 2014, said Harry Horowitz, senior manager of Advanced Industries for the Colorado Department of Economic Development and International Trade. Advanced manufacturing employment grew 11 percent statewide while growing 7 percent nationwide during the period.
Jobs have returned to the U.S. from overseas because of increased shipping costs from foreign countries, an abundance of domestic natural gas to fuel U.S. factories, as well as lower U.S. labor costs and higher worker productivity.
â€œWith all the efforts that Colorado is making both in the community college system and K through 12, system, Colorado in particular is going to be a very attractive place for companies that are setting up manufacturing plants to relocate.â€ Horowitz said.
Todayâ€™s industry involves the intricacies of making semiconductor chips at companies such as Avago Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq: AVGO) and robotic welding cells at Wolf Robotics in Fort Collins. That kind of complexity requires a specialized education that governments, employers and higher learning institutions are working to foster.
In 2013, nine Colorado community colleges, including Front Range, received $25 million from a $475.5 million U.S. Department of Labor grant program. The grants supported 190 projects in at least 183 schools nationwide.
The grants have funded programs in growing industries such as advanced manufacturing, transportation and health care. The effort is part of President Obamaâ€™s broader initiative to ensure that every American has at least one year of postsecondary education and that the U.S. has the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.
In Colorado, educators refer to the initiative as CHAMP â€“ Colorado Helps Advanced Manufacturing Program. The schools plan to educate 1,785 people, with a goal of 1,130 students completing programs over four years, according to the Department of Labor.
Front Range Community College received $9.9 million under the federal grant, the most of any Colorado community college. It spent the money on the Advanced Technology Center.
The technology center contains everything from manual metal cutting and milling machines for entry-level students to the kind of high-tech machines programmed with software that advanced students will use in the workplace.
The average machinist makes $39,600 annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but Newman says the top machinists can make between $80,000 and $90,000 annually. Students are finding jobs in a variety of industries, including aerospace, energy, medical device and automobile.
” … Colorado in particular is going to be a very attractive place for companies that are setting up manufacturing plants to relocate.â€
Colorado Department of Economic Development and International Trade
â€œThereâ€™s a shortage (of workers) and companies are competing for talent,â€ Newman said. â€œYou can write your own ticket, and many machinists do.â€
An advisory board of seven companies, including Woodward Inc. (Nasdaq: WWD), also works with the school to tailor the program curricula to suit their needs.
Casey Sacks, project manager for the Colorado Community College System, said the institution has gone beyond the classroom to offer massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, where hundreds of people have logged on for a math course and a course on employability skills.
â€œWeâ€™ve had worldwide participation on them,â€ she said.
Coloradoâ€™s major research institutions also are preparing their students for an increasingly tech-driven workplace. The Colorado School of Mines, along with the U.S. Department of Energy and more than 120 companies, nonprofits and universities, planned to invest more than $250 million to launch the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation. The institute, led by the University of Tennessee, will develop new fast, efficient manufacturing and recycling technologies.
At Colorado State University in Fort Collins, students have hands-on instruction in facilities such as CUâ€™s Engines and Energy Conversion Lab. Multiple CSU departments, including Computer Science, Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, have incorporated advanced manufacturing education into their curricula, said Tony Maciejewski, head of CSUâ€™s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.
The education includes everything from work with 3D printers and internships with local advanced manufacturing companies such as Wolf Robotics. CSU also launched a new undergraduate automation in advanced manufacturing course this semester in addition to the two graduate courses already offered on the subject.
â€œThere has been a history of people working in the robotics and automation field, and now itâ€™s accelerating with the interest around advanced manufacturing,â€ Maciejewski said.
Still, the industry faces a shortage of advanced manufacturing workers in Colorado.
â€œWe donâ€™t have enough skilled workers for advanced manufacturing,â€ said Mary Jeffreys, operations manager for Golden-based Colorado Advanced Manufacturing Alliance. â€œThe baby boomers are getting ready to retire, and thereâ€™s not a lot in the pipeline for future workers to replace them.â€
Steve Lynn can be reached at 970-232-3147, 303-630-1968 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveLynnBW.