054. Industrial Future Series – Closing the Industrial Skills Gap

Chris: 00:30

Welcome to EECO Asks Why. Today we have an idea that we’re going to be talking about. Closing the industrial skills gap. To help us walk through that conversation we have Jason Simon, who is the Director at AMTEC. So welcome, Jason.

Jason: 00:44

Good morning, how are you doing today?

Chris: 00:46

I’m doing good, man. It’s a pretty morning in North Carolina. So where are you located at again?

Jason: 00:51

I am located in the Owensboro-Kentucky area and it is a beautiful morning here also.

Chris: 00:56

Oh man. Sounds great. We’re planning a trip to Kentucky, so I’m excited to get out there, but, looking forward to having this conversation with you and we’re hearing this across the board. Every customer we talk to it’s come on EECO Asks Why, they’re talking about workforce attrition and people are leaving, retiring and trying to bring up the next generation. So I know you have a lot of expertise in here. And so what are you hearing from those industrials around the need for the skilled workforce?

Jason: 01:23

Exactly like you’ve just alluded to everywhere you look in manufacturing right now, there’s a, just a crisis shortage for the skilled workforce. The average age has shot way up near the retirement age, where manufacturing is trying to entice retirees back in because they don’t have the amount of skilled, educated workers coming in to replace the people that are leaving. And I don’t think it’s being dramatic to say that it has reached a crisis point

Chris: 01:53

Again, it’s across the board, everyone we talked to. And when I ran across your information and we got connected together, I just thought the solution and the way you guys are attacking this problem head on is so spot on.

So what were some of those areas of concern that drove some of the discussions for the creation of AMTEC?

Jason: 02:12

The creation of AMTEC happened back in the 2005, 2006 area, or that’s where the discussions happened anyway. The shortage is not new. It’s something that we’ve been facing for a long time in manufacturing. And that’s really what drove the initial discussions, but not just the shortage, but the lack of a skill’s standard. And industrial maintenance is what really drove the initial discussion,

For the listeners who aren’t familiar with AMTEC. AMTEC stands for the Advanced Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative. And initially it was a couple of national science foundation grants that were intended to bring together the automotive industry to agree on a skill standard for what they needed and maintenance technicians and their manufacturing facilities.

 AMTEC really was birthed because of the crisis and because of a need for a standard, that just a skillset standard that any maintenance technician, whether they worked in Ford, whether they worked in Nissan or Toyota, they all had that same baseline standard that would allow them to be successful in those facilities.

That initial discussion was brought about because of the age of the average technician was going up. The stigma of working in manufacturing very much was it’s a dirty job. When you have parents and guidance counselors telling young adults not to get a job in manufacturing because you’ll just be turned into a ranch and it’s just a dirty job. And then that lack of a skill standard, that’s really what drove the creation of AMTEC.

Chris: 03:50

I got you. Very good. So it’s so funny, you talked about that manufacturing perspective and we actually had a guest who just talked about that for her whole episode, because you’re right. Sometimes people will just, they go straight to this perception in their head about manufacturing environments. And most of the times, if you go to a Toyota or Ford, to mention a couple of places you just said, you could probably eat off their floors.

Jason: 04:12


Chris: 04:14

It’s amazing the way it is perceived versus reality. Hats off to you guys looking forward to learning more about AMTEC as we go. You mentioned a couple of the automotive. Are those the types of SMEs that you are engaging with or consulting with for the design of some of your programs?

Jason: 04:31

So initially it was purely automotive. That’s what the national science foundation grant was based around was the automotive industry. So our subject matter experts came from all the big names in automotive that you would expect: the Toyotas, the Fords, General Motors, BMW, Nissan initially.

The national science foundation actually told us that we were crazy. We would never get subject matter experts from those companies to come together and agree on anything because they were, there were arch enemies, there were competitors. And not only did we get them to come together to help us develop this skill standard and everything else AMTEC is designed around or consists of, but when they came together, they actually told us it was imperative for their future of their industries that they came together and that they did this.

 Now, since then we realized with AMTEC, when it was the automotive manufacturing, technical education collaborative, we started getting a lot of phone calls from other manufacturing sectors, whether that be the aerospace, supply chain, the food manufacturing. And what we found out real quickly was that if a maintenance technician in Ford, Had the same skill standards that a maintenance technician in the aerospace industry was going to need in manufacturing or in supply chain.

So, you know, we made that shift from automotive to just general advanced manufacturing and our subject matter experts now we still have a very heavy automotive, presence back to our roots, but we also have aerospace. We have, blow molding, plastic and rubber. We have food chain, supply chain. Our subject matter experts come from all across the sectors of manufacturing.

Chris: 06:15

So you’re talking manufacturing, but then you’re somewhat that you’re in the education space. So sometimes there’s a gap. You talk about a communication gap or expectation gap between what education thinks and what manufacturing thinks. So how are you addressing that?

Jason: 06:30

It really comes down to that collaboration. For so many years, there’s been this perception that education tells industry what they need and industry just has to listen and accept what they get as far as their skilled workforce. For a long time, it was very much an us-them mentality. And that makes sense, because if you think about it, industry they move very fast. If they see a need to shift, they’re able to move fast to change their direction and adapt to what the market is requiring.

 Education, on the other side, we don’t move very fast. We have a lot of bureaucracies in place. A lot of time, we’re part of state agencies and we all know how fast government agencies move. So really getting. Industry and education to understand the unique challenges that the two of us face on a day-to-day basis and then looking for those unique solutions on how we can still fill each other’s needs.

 Education, we have to fill the needs of manufacturing and we have to respond to that urgency that manufacturing has. Traditionally in community college environment, you’re looking at a two year turnaround for a student, but with the current crisis of right now, industry can’t wait two years for their students. They need them next week. So understanding the unique challenges that both sides industry and education has, and then looking for those unique solutions, whether that be apprenticeship models, whether that be work and learn models. For instance, FAME, the Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education is a good example.

It’s a perfect example of how education and industry they come together. Industry is very involved in the curriculum that’s being taught. Education is very involved in understanding those unique needs and the students they’re actually, in some situations, some examples they’re working at industry for three days a week, and then they’re going to school for two days a week for their education.

So just finding those unique solutions that work in different regions and understanding that it’s not an us versus them. It’s we’re all in this together. That’s how industry and education is going to have to bridge this gap.

Chris: 08:54

Yeah, no doubt. Hats off. You guys sound like you have a really good process in place. It’s the value proposition fits both industry and education. It sounds like there’s a lot of value that the end users are getting from it. So maybe walk us through that because you talked about that unique solutions. What does a typical engagement look like? What does, how long does it last, things like that and what value do those partners from a manufacturing standpoint, what are they seeing?

Jason: 09:20

For the AMTEC, what we provide is a turnkey solution for educational partners to teach industrial maintenance and to provide those maintenance technicians to their industry partners. We provide the curriculum in a hybrid model where the students can move through at their own pace, in an online environment. And then go and do their labs, their hands-on labs with their instructors to get that crucial component. We provide industrial equipment, training equipment to work on, and then we provide national assessments to show that the learner has mastered the area.

For manufacturing, what we provide is we provide that bridge with their educational institutions. The finished product of an AMTEC student has traditionally exceeded manufacturing’s expectations from historically what some programs have given them. And that makes sense. One of the things I haven’t really explained yet is how AMTEC goes about developing curriculum and assessments and the trainer that I mentioned.

We talked about our subject matter experts earlier. What our subject matter experts do is they tell us exactly what we need to be teaching maintenance technicians. And it’s not really that crazy of an idea. If I’m in manufacturing and I’m going to be hiring students, then I really need to have a say in what you’re teaching my future workers.

If our industry partners don’t tell us that something needs to be taught, then we don’t teach that to the students. But if our industry partners tell us that, let’s say for instance, in controls and instrumentations, if this is what historically is being taught and it needs to be beefed up to meet the needs of our industry partners, I can promise you our subject matter experts don’t have any problem looking at us and saying, “Hey. This is a great foundation, but you really need to focus more here because when they’re coming to our facilities, they’re not ready for what they’re seeing on a day to day basis.”

We provide a voice for manufacturing. We bridge that gap with manufacturing and education and for education, we talked about how slow education moves. We give them that turnkey solution. That bypasses a lot of those needed steps that they have to take in order to create curriculum and create these labs for their classrooms. We have all of that ready, and it’s a great package because it’s exactly what your industry partners are asking for because they’re on our committees and they’re giving us their feedback.

Chris: 11:54

I got you. You were mentioning industry partners a lot, just to clarify for maybe the listeners of EECO Asks Why that are out there in manufacturing. So is this a small, mid, large size industries or industrials, or how does one become a, if you’re interested and you want to start working towards, attacking this gap, how does that process work?

Jason: 12:13

So for your first question. Yes, it’s small, large mid-size. We have industry partners that just run the gamut across the board. And like I said, that in the aerospace, automotive, supply chain, food. We have subject matter experts from, for instance, around where I’m at here in Kentucky, we have a blow molding facility with about 300 employees

The other side of that is one of our major industry partners is Boeing in the Seattle area. We go anywhere from 50 employees all the way up to however many thousands of employees at these larger facilities. And if there’s a manufacturing facility out there, if there’s a manufacturing company out there, that’s struggling with that relationship with their local education partners, or if they need to be able to tap into the resources that AMTEC has, we have our website amtecworkforce.org. They can reach out to me. They can email me at Jason.Simon@kctcs.edu, or they can call it (270) 686-4616. And we can start that process to look at what needs they have and see if AMTEC is going to be a good fit for them. And then begin to implement whether it’s the curriculum, the assessments, or the physical equipment, the training equipment, we can look and see what their needs are and just build that relationship from there.

Chris: 13:34

Outstanding. And for the listeners too, we’ll put all the contact information for Jason and AMTEC, so they can go straight to the resources, getting in touch with him directly. Cause I’m sure there’s some listeners out there that would like to learn more. And I’m interested too, on the training itself, Jason. There’s some things that are pretty difficult in industry. So what’s been some of the challenging areas to implement in the curriculum to meet the need?

Jason: 13:59

One of the biggest challenges is, AMTEC, we are housed in an educational environment. So we deal with those challenges of how quickly we can move versus how quickly our industry partners need us to move. So that’s something that we deal with a lot. I would say right now, our biggest challenge is keeping up with the speed of technology in industry .

Early on in the AMTEC timeline, we were able to go three or four years between updating our curriculum because there wasn’t really a lot happening in those three or four years. But now with the industrial internet of things and with industry 4.0, things are changing weekly. And especially with the COVID crisis happening right now, really exasperating, you know, throwing gas on that fire, things are changing at a breakneck speed. So our biggest challenge is keeping up with those changes.

We’re doing it well, but it is an ongoing process and ongoing quality improvement process of working with our industry subject matter experts, getting their feedback, and then implementing that in our training, in our curriculum. We’re about to launch the second version of the AMTEC integrated training piece of equipment, the integrated system we’re calling it AMTEC trainer 2.0. We’re obviously not creative and don’t have marketing degrees or we’d have something a lot fancier to say name-wise, but it is really bringing all of those industry 4.0, industrial internet of thing labs to our piece of equipment now. So we’re excited about that launch.

Chris: 15:28

I know, you got my interest and probably a lot of the listeners interest up because we talk about that so much. Digital transformation, 4.0, IIOT, things like that. So can you share any red threads or common areas that you’re hearing from industry that you’re really having to focus on from that development standpoint and those areas?

Jason: 15:46

I would say cybersecurity is a big one. The HMIs on there, the ethernet, the IOs.

Chris: 15:53

So it sounds like you guys are being very proactive in addressing these changing needs of industry. And that caught me when you said cyber security and HMI’s we interviewed a vice-president of security, if you will, at a large manufacturer. And that’s the area that she referenced. She’s like the biggest area of concern, a lot of times from the manufacturing standpoint, are the HMI’s and the security associated with those because of a hackers trying to get into your network, into your OT. And if they get to the HMI, there’s your beach front, they could go anywhere.

And so hats off to you guys for recognizing that technology area is something that we need to educate people on more because that threat is real. Very cool, man. I sound like some great stuff going in. Hey, I’m sitting next to a marketer, so he may be able to help you with that 2.0 if you want to talk to him afterwards.

Jason: 16:42


Chris: 16:44

I’m just messing with you. It sounds great. So how about for the people listening that are really interested. So, what type of roles does this training prepare you for?

Jason: 16:54

Across the country it’s called different things. The area that I’m in it’s called industrial maintenance. Out west mechatronics is a big, mechatronics technicians. We’re preparing people to be able to go into manufacturing environment and fix things and tinker. Those maintenance technicians that when a part of the line goes down, they can come and they can use their troubleshooting skills that they’ve learned through the AMTEC process and quickly determine what’s wrong with this piece of equipment, how do I fix it? Am I qualified to fix it or do I need to send it up the line to the next level and then get that equipment back up and running. So we’re preparing the maintenance technicians for these facilities, whether it’s mechatronics technicians, maintenance technicians, people who troubleshoot robots or troubleshoot PLCs, that’s the type of employee that we’re preparing for the workforce.

Chris: 17:44

Right. And it’s such a need man. So that’s wonderful. How about you’ve been doing this for a while. Any success stories, anything you’d like to share from your time there at AMTEC?

Jason: 17:53

We have so many success stories. It’s hard to pick just one. I’m going to tell you, it gives me warm and fuzzy feelings when I hear about someone who has struggled with the traditional education process, that then turns around and realizes that they have an aptitude for this type of work. And they are able to go through a program, 95% of the time with zero student loan debt, and then come out on the other end and go into not just a career but a career that pays really well and change their family tree.

One of my favorite stories that we have is of a young lady in the Somerset, Kentucky area named April Pulston. And she did just that. She struggled many years, and then she found the Somerset program at the community college there. She went through the AMTEC program with, we consider him one of our star instructors there at Somerset, Butch Tincher. She changed her family tree.

She is making great money now and she’s able to provide for her children. And it gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling. As the director of AMTEC, I don’t get to stand in front of a classroom. I don’t get to interact with the students very often, but knowing that we’re impacting these students’ lives by giving them access to some of the best, in my opinion, we’re giving them access to the best skill standard out there.

We’re preparing them better than anyone else for these careers, knowing that we’re changing the lives of these individuals. That’s what keeps me going. And that’s what makes me excited to come to work every day.

Chris: 19:31

I’m curious. Now you said the no student loan debt. So is that typical for the program?

Jason: 19:36

It really is typical for the program. Most of our partners are community colleges. And with this program being at most a two year program, if that’s the direction that the school decides to go, or if they decide to put it accelerated with all the other resources available out there and the demographics of students having financial aid available to them and other resources, depending on the States that they’re in, most of our students come out with zero student loan.

You’re looking at if they choose the two-year path, you’re looking at coming out with no student loan potentially, and starting in a job, depending on the area of the country you work on making $60, $70, $80,000 just starting. Not including overtime and because of this shortage of workers right now, our graduates they’re getting promoted and they’re going up that career ladder really quick. So yeah, we’re proud of our students. We really are. We are humbled to be a part of their success.

Chris: 20:35

You’re doing great things and we call it EECO Asks Why. We love to get to the why towards the end of the episodes. And I think you’ve touched on this in your last couple answers, what is the big driving factor? Why is the work you’re doing to AMTEC important to the future of manufacturing?

Jason: 20:50

Our country is built on manufacturing and if the machines in manufacturing aren’t running then manufacturing goes down. And if we can’t put skilled workers in there that can figure out why the machine goes down and get it back up really quickly and if we can’t put enough of them in there, manufacturing is going to continue to struggle. And right now manufacturing in a lot of cases is begging the retirees to come back. At some point they’re not going to be able to come back anymore. They’re not going to want to come back anymore. At some point, they’re going to want to stay home.

They’ve earned the right to stay home in retirement and be with their grandkids. And if we don’t get a new generation of workers in there, then manufacturing is not going to be able to be effective and efficient. And that’s a crisis. I know I keep coming back to that word, but that’s a crisis.

Chris: 21:42

You’re all over it. Cause it is. But hats off, this has been just an enlightening conversation, a ton of information. Again, we’ll put all the links to AMTEC in the show notes for the listeners. I encourage you to check it out when I went and it was researching, I saw the way that it’s modular, the way that the curriculum works. It’s really cool. Encourage you to check it out. Jason, thank you so much for taking the time and sharing that with us here today.

Jason: 22:08

Well, Chris, I appreciate you having me on today. It was a pleasure. You guys are doing great work. Also, thank you for helping to spread the word about these types of things. And we really appreciate it. It’s going to take a collective effort to step up and meet this head on.

Chris: 22:21

Absolutely. Again, hats off to you guys. Thank you again, Jason.

Jason: 22:25