Partnerships Building Skills and a 21st Century Workforce

September 30, 2014

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By Dr. Annette Parker

Businesses need qualified employees to succeed. Higher Education wants to provide instruction that leads to employment opportunities for its graduates. Given these two complimentary goals, it should be natural for businesses and educators to want to partner, right? While there are many such partnerships, the potential is just beginning to be realized. The following illustrates this issue within one of the United States’ largest industries— manufacturing—but the principles could be applied to multiple industries.

According to the 2011 Skills Gap Report conducted by The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte Consulting, 82% percent of manufacturers reported a moderate or serious shortage of skilled workers. More than 75% of manufacturers indicated the skill shortage negatively impacted their ability to expand. With the entry of advanced automation into manufacturing, employees need a higher level of preparation and industry-specific training, but just as important are the “basics” needed by all employees.

In 2010, the U.S. Employment and Training Administration (ETA), along with the Manufacturing Institute, National Council for Advanced Manufacturing and Society of Manufacturing Engineers, created an updated model of the competencies required by today’s manufacturers. At the base of the model are the Personal Effectiveness, Academic and Workplace competencies. The next level, Industry-Wide Technical Competencies and Industry-Sector Technical Competencies, is where the skills gap reveals itself, with a shortage of employees specifically trained to meet the needs of today’s sophisticated manufacturing industry.

Models That Work

Looking at examples of successful industry-education partnerships can provide insight for creating future collaborations. The Automotive Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative (AMTEC) provides a positive illustration of what works. Today, AMTEC boasts a partnership that includes 38 community and technical colleges and 25 manufacturing plants. While huge today, this collaboration started small and grew from the ground up.

It originally started in 1987 when a single manufacturer, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, needed trained maintenance technicians to service the production equipment at its Georgetown, Kentucky plant. At the time, many manufacturers had a variety of single-skilled (albeit deeply skilled) positions such as electricians, pipefitters, or millwrights. Toyota’s approach, on the other hand, was to have multi-skilled technicians able to address any problem anywhere in the production line. Toyota turned to Bluegrass Community & Technical College to provide the multi-skilled maintenance training they needed to advance the skills of their technicians. After two decades, this partnership and the expectation for multi-skilled maintenance technicians resulted in a Bluegrass Community and Technical College (BCTC) campus located on the site of the Georgetown, Kentuckyroduction complex. The campus features a small- scale replica of Toyota’s manufacturing floor, enabling students to apply what they learn right there.

According to Caren Caton, retired General Manager of Toyota’s North American regional production and maintenance training center, engaging the BCTC resources to conduct maintenance technician training on the Toyota site enabled Toyota to efficiently provide high quality training while internal resources focused on identifying additional training demands or improving current programs. When the Kentucky Community and Technical College System inquired about

Toyota’s interest in a collaborative effort to strengthen maintenance technician training, Caton said yes. In the interest of using their scarce resources wisely, it made sense to partner with other automotive manufacturers and technical colleges to advance their common goal of producing highly skilled technicians for the industry.

Common standards for basic skills in maintenance would reduce the cost of training for Toyota’s multiple plants and would provide affordable training for Toyota suppliers, which are often small plants with small training budgets. Additionally, the concept appealed to Caton because it exemplified the “Customer First” philosophy of Toyota that requires actual customer input on what is needed to ensure customer satisfaction.

“It wasn’t necessary or even reasonable for the technical colleges to determine our needs in the absence of our input, but that was the status quo for many years,” says Caton.

This initial idea of providing training based on the specific needs of today’s manufacturers scaled up to a multi-state and even multi-national effort. The first step came at a national conference in 2004, attended by community and technical college leaders from Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky. While discussing various automotive training programs and services, an idea emerged to develop a cooperative effort that would transcend college boundaries, state lines, and competing company interests. In 2005, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System hosted a planning meeting with 28 auto industry representatives and 27 college representatives, and AMTEC was born. Today, AMTEC includes six leading auto producers (Toyota, Ford, General Motors, BMW, Honda and Nissan), along with numerous manufacturers that supply the auto industry. The community colleges participating come from 13 states. Numerous government and economic development agencies are also involved with AMTEC.

JoAnne Pritchard, retired engineering manager at General Motors, reports that it is common for GM factories to use their respective community colleges to conduct various training programs for their workers. She indicated that what makes AMTEC unique is that rather than one-on-one relationships, which can create variation in the product (i.e., the education and training delivered to employees), AMTEC provides an opportunity for collaboration across the industry in defining common standards, curriculum, and assessments. This leads to a much better prepared and consistent workforce.

AMTEC has had a positive impact not only on the organizations involved, but also, on the individuals.

Participants report that one of AMTEC’s greatest benefits has been the opportunity for informal learning about one another’s organizations, resulting in close company- to-company, college-to-college, and company-to-college connections. Caton recalls:

“The effort required to understand the problems of the larger industry was tremendous. The work sessions were intense and didn’t always result in consensus on action plans. Because our goal was groundbreaking for the automotive industry, as well as for the college partners, we persisted until we achieved a shared sense of purpose. The collaboration was based on a common goal and everyone contributed something of value, whether it was designing work simulators or providing skilled technicians to review training materials. Some

of the best examples of our collaboration were AMTEC workshops hosted by industry to share their manufacturing and training facilities with competitor partners—events that strengthened the common foundation of our partnership.”

itchard concurs, saying that “the automotive manufacturers are highly competitive about our products. But we all recognize that making sure our community colleges are providing the right training and education to our future manufacturing workers is good for everyone. This isn’t where we compete...We share an interest around preparing and employing highly capable, qualified workers, which allows us to talk together, share information, and build great friendships.”

The engagement of AMTEC participants has been so great that when it came time to select the collaboration’s current Executive Director in 2013, they chose Director Danine Tomlin, who was part of AMTEC’s successful implementation at Alamo Community Colleges. The experience of Tomlin, as well as the many others driving AMTEC initiatives, will assure the collaboration’s sustainability and future success.

What worked with AMTEC can work in other industries as well. Most important to the success of AMTEC was its continual focus on the value of the partnership, with companies and educators working together toward the common goal of producing employees with the skills needed by today’s auto manufacturers. This required a focus on developing those employee skills needed by all industry partners. This means focusing on these core skills rather than how they might be applied at an individual company. The result is training that prepares students to work anywhere in the industry sector.

According to Tomlin, AMTEC’s continuous improvement approach for its content and assessment tools lends itself to the same concepts that drive industry—using data to drive improvements for all stakeholders. A 2010 case study by the National Governor’s Association (NGA) identified key principles of the successful AMTEC model that may be transferable to other industries:

• A real-world curriculum is developed collaboratively with the relevant industry so that skills being taught are precisely those that the industry needs—international occupational standards that are common to that industry worldwide.

• Education occurs in a contextual setting (i.e., a work- like environment rather than a traditional classroom).

• Content knowledge and critical thinking are taught together so students learn problem-solving skills not as part of a separate academic program but at the same time they learn technical skills.

• The curriculum is broken into the smallest possible components (“modules”) to ensure the actual skills an industry requires are taught and that students master each required competency.

• Learning occurs on the most flexible schedule possible: a module at a time, with options to learn modules online when appropriate, and taking modules out of sequence when needed.

• Ongoing assessment and certification processes focus on making sure that workers, companies, and educational institutions are all engaged in a continuous learning process so that the skills and the curricula stay current at all times.

These principles proved successful for AMTEC and its participants. According to a 2008 survey cited in an NGA case study, 50% of automobile industry participants introduced changes in the training and education of their workers. In addition, 50% of community college participants revised courses and 56% introduced a new course to deal with the needs of the local auto industry. AMTEC has also received several major National Science Foundation (NSF) grants, including one establishing a National Advanced Automotive Manufacturing Center of Excellence in 2009.

Positive Trends

In recent years, government agencies and lawmakers have increasingly recognized the value of aligning education with the needs of industry. Here are just a few of the many recent examples of progress happening at the national level:

Advanced Manufacturing Processes

In 2011, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a Report Ensuring American Leadership in Advanced Manufacturing, calling for “a partnership across government, industry, and academia to identify the most pressing challenges and transformative opportunities to improve the technologies, processes, and products across multiple manufacturing industries.” As a result of this work, President Obama established the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP), creating the first AMP Steering Committee in 2011. In 2012, the AMP Steering Committee released its report, Capturing Domestic Competitive Advantage in Advanced Manufacturing, which proposed priorities and initiatives to strengthen the U.S. advanced manufacturing sector. In 2013, the AMP Steering Committee “2.0” was established to build on the work of the inaugural committee in a renewed, cross-sector, national effort to secure U.S. leadership in the emerging technologies that will create high-quality manufacturing jobs and enhance America’s global competitiveness.

To this end, the AMP Steering Committee “2.0” set up work teams to address specific areas aimed at driving advances in U.S. innovation and workforce capabilities. One of these teams focused specifically on “Demand‐ Driven Workforce Development.” The team’s action plan included the use of a common certification system used by both education and industry. Fortunately, this work had already begun in 2009, with the Manufacturing Institute of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) launching a certification system for a variety of advanced manufacturing fields. Often, these certifications build upon one another (called portable, stackable credentials), which offers employees the flexibility to obtain each credential at a time that is right for them. The national certifications also provide employers throughout the country with a means to evaluate a current or potential employee’s skillset based on the national certifications they have, regardless of where they earned them. In this way, it levels the playing field for both employers and employees, with all speaking the same language. The AMP team’s efforts will expand on and increase adoption of the national “NAM-Endorsed” certification system, as well as establish national apprenticeship standards.

Department of Labor


In April 2014, the Employment and Training Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced the availability of approximately $450 million in grant funds for the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant program. The grant program’s goal is to “increase the number of workers who attain certificates, degrees, and other industry-recognized credentials.” Other DOL grants provide funds for programs that provide training and support services to specific populations, including women and Native Americans.

Workforce and Innovation Opportunity Act (WIOA)

In late July, President Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), following approval by the U.S. Senate in June and the U.S. House in early July. WIOA, a bicameral, bipartisan act aimed at modernizing and improving existing federal workforce development programs, will help workers attain skills for 21st century jobs, provide support for workers with disabilities, and foster the modern workforce that evolving American businesses rely on to compete. The bill’s overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate (95 to 3 vote) and the House (415 to 6 vote) demonstrates federal leaders’ commitment to this issue.

With so many recognizing the importance of educational and industry alignment in effective workforce development, the time is right to act. Spurred on by the support of agencies and policymakers alike, there is a significant opportunity, and it is now up to educational institutions and employers to capitalize on this positive trend. The steps taken today will have a tremendous impact on the future of our country’s workforce, businesses, and collective economic prosperity as a whole.

Dr. Annette Parker was among those who started the Automotive Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative (AMTEC), which, under her leadership as Executive Director, was awarded a National Center of Excellence in 2009. In 2013, she became President of South Central College, a comprehensive Community and Technical College with campuses in Faribault and North Mankato Minnesota, which is part of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. 

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