AREA students can soon graduate from high school with the skills necessary to be a “Jack or Jill of all trades.”
That is how Gene Hack, director of the C4 Columbus Area Career Connection, describes the job of a maintenance technician.
C4 officials and industry partners are working to develop a two- or three-year curriculum modeled after a polytechnic institute that will offer a pathway to a career as a maintenance technician in electronics or machining.
Kent Fuller, human resources manager at local manufacturer Caltherm, said they are careers that top the “hot jobs list.”
More than 5,000 manufacturing jobs are expected to open up in the region in the next few years, but companies struggle to fill them, even though they typically offer entry-level salaries near $40,000.
Fuller said the workforce is about 80 percent qualified now, but that could flip to 20 percent as trained technicians retire and their positions open up.
“It’s critical for future growth to get the skilled trades back in focus,” he said. “We have to fill the void which we see coming.”
Industry and education leaders are collaborating with C4 to fill the skills gap.
The effort is made possible by a $204,805 grant from the Indiana Works Council and the Center for Education and Career Innovation. It is part of $4.3 million in funding distributed to career and technical education programs around the state, designed to encourage innovative and collaborative career and technical training.
Local partners Enkei America, Honda, Cummins Inc., NTN Driveshaft Inc. and Caltherm also pitched in $70,000 in required matching funds to support the new curriculum, which will cover skills deemed necessary in electronics or machining such as safety, welding and gauge reading.
Pending approval from the state Department of Education, students from all 10 high schools in Bartholomew, Brown, Jackson, Decatur and Johnson counties can enroll by fall of 2015.
“I’m excited about it,” Hack said. “We’ve had programs that give students an overall view of these skills, but this program will be that on steroids.”
EcO15, an initiative under the Community Education Coalition that is focused on increasing employment and education attainment in certain sectors, recognized the need for advanced manufacturing several years ago.
Stephanie Weber, who handles communication and outreach for EcO15, said the organization began meeting with key community educators and industry partners about two years ago to conduct a survey to assess business needs and the skills gap.
“What we learned from those employers were there were 16 really targeted and skilled jobs that were most in demand, and they were really struggling to fill that pipeline,” she said.
Among them are computer-assisted design drafters, electronics technicians and maintenance technicians.
“It became increasingly apparent that currently the greatest skills gap lies in the need for trained maintenance technician employees,” Hack said.
Barry Parkhurst, vice president of administration for NTN Driveshaft, said his company is currently recruiting workers from employment agencies or bringing them down from Indianapolis.
“It’s OK, but it’s not really effective,” he said. “Ultimately, many of these people won’t stay because of the commute. We want local, we want our workers to be from our area. We want to fill those jobs without going through an agency.”
Parkhurst said he trusts C4 can help NTN Driveshaft accomplish that goal, although he recognizes it is going to take a while.
Hack said he is hoping for about 25 students to enroll in the program initially. Students entering their freshman or sophomore year in August could enter the program next year, and the first class of graduates could be ready by spring of 2018.
“It won’t fill all our needs, but it will fill some of the needs in the area,” said Steve Mackey, a learning and development leader for Southern Indiana Placement Services of Cummins. “We really are going to have to grow our own trade base.”
The Innovative Career and Technical Education Curriculum grants are awarded as a three-to-one match, so C4 had to secure private funding to be eligible.
Eight industry and education partners — Enkei America, Honda Manufacturing of Indiana, EcO15, Cummins, NTN Driveshaft, Caltherm, Purdue College of Technology and Ivy Tech Community College in Columbus — have pledged more than just dollars.
Several companies will encourage their employees to serve on advisory boards and participate in recruitment activities. Others will assist in curriculum development, serve as classroom presenters and host teachers on summer- and fall-break training.
“It is an unprecedented level of collaboration,” Weber said. “To have educators and industry partners sit across the table and talk about curriculum and just tear it apart, it just unfortunately does not exist in many places.”
Mackey said the collaboration helps both the businesses and the students.
Each industry partner has agreed to interview graduating students for full-time positions or for apprenticeships as a maintenance technician.
They would consider bringing younger students on board for internships, but Parkhurst said companies run into restrictions with child labor laws. Instead, students will be poised to enter the workforce immediately after high school graduation.
Steve Bardonner, dean of the School of Technology at Ivy Tech Community College — Columbus, said the school-to-work pathway might affect enrollment in his classes, but not necessarily in the long term.
“Obviously I would love for students to come here,” he said. “But a lot of our local companies are seeing a strong value in their employees continuing on and getting more education and more training and certifications.”
Getting students started
Hack said he and the project’s partners will begin marketing the new program to students this year, even before they can enroll. Educators and companies have an uphill battle, Weber said.
There’s a stigma attached to career and technical education and to manufacturing, but it is not your father’s shop class any more.
“Too many parents and counselors unfortunately think of it how it was 20 or 30 years ago,” she said. “It wasn’t as high-tech as it was now. But these are viable pathways.”
Bardonner said he could eat off the floor of a manufacturing firm now — although he still would not want to.
“We need a better understanding,” he said. “The manufacturing floor is not like it once was, it’s not dirty or stinky. They’re very clean, and they’re very safe, and it’s a great working environment.”
Companies already have agreed to help with the effort. They’ve created a 19-page presentation that’s meant to attract students to the field with statistics about salary and demand:
Southeast Indiana manufacturers are projected to offer as many as 5,048 jobs through 2018.
One in three people work in manufacturing in southeast Indiana.
Manufacturing workers in this region earn $44,000 in average compensation.
A similar effort, led by Mackey and Cummins, worked in the past to increase enrollment from seven to 17 in the C4 computer-assisted design program.
Iannelli Olivares, a 2012 Columbus North High School graduate, started CAD courses her sophomore year and was a part-time employee at Cummins by the time she was a senior.
She was hired on as an apprentice after graduation — she will graduate from that program in about a year and a half — and she’s pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering technology at Purdue College of Technology in Columbus.
“I really like it, and I wouldn’t be here if Cummins hadn’t come to the school,” Olivares said. “It’s a really great opportunity that actually got me some engineering experience.”