Polk State College helps close manufacturing skills gap

  • July 20, 2011
  • Feature
In 2005, Florida’s manufacturers faced losing skilled craftspeople to retirement and other local manufacturers because of a limited skilled labor pool in the region. Unfortunately, as the baby-boomer generation retires from an increasingly high-tech workplace, the shortage of employees with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills is growing worse every year. Without the proper training programs in place, companies simply have no way to fill the labor pipeline.
Educational institutions are vital to reversing this trend. But simply getting more students into colleges isn’t enough. They must learn the right skills, select the right disciplines, and make the right connections to link them with good jobs.
Polk State College’s (PSC) Corporate College, based in central Florida, understands the importance of training the next generation of manufacturing employees. PSC offers a variety of classes to help students learn the skills they need to succeed in manufacturing positions. Mosaic, the world’s leading producer of phosphate-based fertilizers, was one local manufacturing company that was pleased with the training its employees received at PSC. Because of the high caliber of the training program at PSC, Mosaic turned to the college when it needed a special program designed to help prevent a forecasted skills drain within the company.
In July 2007, Mosaic operations conducted a study revealing that the company would have to curtail chemical and mining operations if it didn’t have trained, qualified replacements for retiring workers in two critical skill areas – mechanical craft and electrical instrumentation and automation craft.
“Companies used to have formalized in-house apprenticeship programs, but training programs largely disappeared by the early 1970s when manufacturing profits started shrinking,” said Ernest Helms, program manager for the PSC Corporate College. “The next generation of skilled workers learned their skills on the job from people who had gone through earlier training. This learning by osmosis just didn’t cut it. Now, we’re losing that brain trust of experience.”
Mosaic realized it needed to move quickly to curtail the workforce deficit. The company asked PSC to create a training program that would help its workers complete the apprenticeship required to reach journeyman status. Apprenticeships typically require 8,000 hours of on-the-job training, which lasts three to four years. But with the skilled labor shortage looming for Mosaic, PSC needed to find a way to shorten the typical timeline.
During initial development of the general manufacturing training program at PSC, the college’s staff discovered that most of the programmable logic-controlled automation equipment in use among local manufacturers was made by Rockwell Automation. Because of its familiarity with Allen-Bradley equipment and the strength of Rockwell training, PSC brought in Rockwell Automation, in conjunction with RWD Technologies, to help develop and deliver an essential manufacturing training program. Rockwell Automation trainers worked continuously at PSC to develop courses that would help the next generation of manufacturing workers excel.
The curriculum developed by PSC and Rockwell Automation included electrical and instrumentation automation classes designed to give students the basic technical knowledge and skills needed in high-performance manufacturing. A key element in this training was to teach students how to operate and troubleshoot the programmable logic controllers that interact with a variety of mechanical devices on the plant floor.
In order to meet Mosaic’s tight timeline and fulfill the company’s apprenticeship training program request, PSC needed to make some changes to its general training offering. Using the newly developed curriculum, PSC created two accelerated, two-year apprenticeship programs initially designed for Mosaic employees – one for the electrical instrumentation and automation craft, and the other for the mechanical craft.
The programs were designed to teach theory in the classroom and provide hands-on training in the school’s labs. PSC students receive 1,232 hours of theory and hands-on practical lab time over the course of the two-year program. The increased classroom training allowed PSC to shorten on-the-job training. The Mosaic apprentices qualify for “advanced standing” status, receiving 2,000 hours per year in on-the-job training, allowing them to satisfy the program requirements in two years, thus reducing the total time from 8000 to 4000 hours.
With the ambitious plans in place for the Mosaic apprenticeship program, PSC realized it needed additional curriculum, equipment, and instructors to make the plans a reality. Once again, PSC turned to its partners Rockwell Automation and RWD because the vendors had the knowledge and resources PSC felt it needed to provide a successful training program.
PSC and Rockwell Automation presented the plans and curriculum for the two apprentice programs to Mosaic and proposed that each class include 16 apprentices. Mosaic agreed. “Though starting out as a supplier to PSC, Rockwell Automation effectively became an adjunct to the school’s programs – providing both curriculum and instructors,” said Helms.
Apprenticeship students from Mosaic take classes at PSC two days per week, and the other three days they work at their jobs in the company’s central Florida facilities. The training has proven worthwhile for both the Mosaic students and their employer.
“This training makes me much more valuable,” said James Brown, one of the 16 Mosaic apprenticeship students. “Management is investing in me, which makes me even more committed to Mosaic. That’s where my loyalty lies. Since they think that much of me, I’m not going to let them down.”
Students who successfully achieve certification through an apprenticeship program automatically earn 15 hours of college credit that can be applied toward a 60-credit Associate of Science (AS) degree in engineering technology, according to the Florida Department of Education. In addition, because students who complete the PSC apprenticeship program are required to take a high number of Rockwell Automation courses, they receive up to an additional 16 credits toward their associate degree at PSC. Engineering schools throughout the state of Florida accept AS degrees from PSC. As a result, students can easily continue on to a four-year program once they’ve graduated from PSC.
“This is an excellent program,” said Brown. “It really is opening the door of opportunity for me.” He plans to continue his education and pursue an AS and then a Bachelor of Science. “I will take all the experience and knowledge I receive at PSC and strive to be the best I can in my job,” he said.
According to Helms, the greatest benefit that students gain from the Mosaic apprenticeship program is education in a meaningful craft that has longevity. In addition, students have greater opportunities for advancement in the future.
For Mosaic, the program is a win from any perspective. The newly trained employees help the company stay competitive, and the company views program graduates as prime candidates for future supervisory roles.
Today, PSC is home to the Florida Banner Center for Excellence in Manufacturing. PSC serves as one of 10 Banner centers in the state charged with becoming a statewide, go-to resource for cutting-edge training for entry-level and experienced workers who need to upgrade their skills in high-value sectors. Due to the success of the program with Mosaic, PSC and their partner Rockwell Automation will offer similar opportunities to the employees of other local manufacturers.

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