How community colleges are reinventing advanced manufacturing training

Post-secondary education is not one-size-fits-all: For a path to manufacturing, many turn to community colleges offering advanced manufacturing training.

Advanced manufacturing training two young men in machining training lab

Peter Dorfman

March 1, 2022

min read
  • Rising tuition costs and uncertain job prospects have reinvigorated the desire for two-year and three-year advanced manufacturing degrees.

  • New curriculum in these degree programs focuses on automated design and manufacturing, teaching students how to adapt to new technology.

  • Advanced manufacturing training programs can help meet the demand for skilled workers as an aging workforce and rapid technological advances leave the industry with unfilled positions.

When colleges and universities had to move classes online in spring 2020 due to COVID-19, it led to many people rethinking the college experience. Students, parents, and education pundits questioned whether online classes were worth the money—and whether a six-figure college education is even a good investment at all.

An engineering degree from a highly selective college may continue to retain some cachet. But stratospheric tuitions and uncertain job prospects have eroded the perceived value of second-tier institutions, both for students and their prospective employers. This moment of reckoning for four-year colleges has also reawakened recognition for US community-college systems.

Two-year and three-year advanced manufacturing training programs are turning out technical specialists who enter the workforce well-qualified and with far less debt than their college-graduate peers. For some of these grads, their training may have begun years before they entered community college.

What is an advanced manufacturing program?

Advanced manufacturing training Gene Haas center students in precision-machining training model
The Gene Haas Center’s progressive precision-machining training model answers industry’s specific needs for a highly skilled 21st-century workforce. Courtesy of The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research.

Advanced manufacturing generally connotes the adoption of information technology, automation, artificial intelligence, sensing, networking, and additive manufacturing technologies to improve the capabilities and economics of manufacturing. In an educational context, though, the term refers to the priority of teaching prospective line workers the skills that manufacturers committed to those technologies need.

Consider Danville, VA, a community of 41,000. Once a bustling textile and tobacco town, Danville is reinventing itself as a hub for advanced manufacturing. One asset that makes this strategy plausible for Danville is an extraordinary, integrated education system built around its innovative community college.

In partnership with various leaders of regional economic transformation, Danville Community College (DCC) has helped create an integrated Danville-Pittsylvania County workforce-development pipeline. The talent-development model starts as early as sixth grade, when students are introduced to digital design software through a collaboration involving multiple educational and industry partners. High school students can earn college credits in robust career and technical education (CTE) programs, and many progress through community college training and even a third-year capstone program at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research’s (IALR) Gene Haas Center for Integrated Machining, where DCC provides instruction.

A teacher works with a student on an electronics project
For middle school students, the GO TEC program provides a window into career clusters in robotics, IT, advanced materials, precision machining, and more using equipment comparable to real industry. Image courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research.

Jeremiah Williams, director of integrated machining technology at DCC, came to education from industry jobs to help create a path for urgently needed manufacturing workers with advanced skills. Williams works with 30 industry partners to identify the skills local industries need, matching course offerings and training programs with those requirements.

He has provided technical guidance and support to the Great Opportunities in Technology and Engineering Careers (GO TEC) program. This collaborative workforce training model involves K–12 schools, higher education, and industry. GO TEC extends to many of Virginia’s southern rural counties and begins exposing students as early as middle school to careers in advanced materials; robotics, automation, and mechatronics; IT/cybersecurity; precision machining; and welding. IALR serves as fiscal agent and program lead alongside a GO TEC staff of four and a 21-member advisory board of educational and industry partners.

“The early exposure to industry standards related to manufacturing and IT allows GO TEC students to discover new career pathways that may not have been previously considered,” says Dr. Tammy Hurt, program manager of GO TEC. “Students as young as sixth grade are learning how the manufacturing industry is changing based on new technology and pandemic responsiveness.”

California’s Pasadena City College (PCC) recently rebuilt its program from the ground up, based on input from a newly formed advisory committee that brings in diverse views of industry needs, according to Jacob Tucker, machine shop instructor.

“Our advisers are major companies,” Tucker says. “They’re small companies. They’re software developers. They’re previous students. They’re current students. They’re professors at other campuses. You’ve got to bring those different visions into it. We need that variety, that diversity within the curriculum.”

One of those advisers is from SpaceX, the commercial rocket venture. PCC students and faculty toured the SpaceX facility. “I noticed when I got there, not everybody was in a traditional lab coat,” Tucker says. “The diversity of the people working there inspired us to replicate that. To see an assembly line of space rockets and understand that our students could get there was very encouraging.”

PCC also gets advice from Lawrence Equipment, a bakery goods manufacturer with machinery used to make corn and flour tortillas, corn chips, pizzas, pita bread, and the like. It’s a very different venture than SpaceX, but according to Violet Segovia, an R&D specialist at Lawrence’s 200-employee plant in South El Monte, CA, the company is such a strong proponent of manufacturing automation that it influenced PCC to adopt Autodesk Inventor and Fusion 360 in its advanced manufacturing program. Fusion 360’s integration of computer-aided design (CAD), manufacturing (CAM), and engineering (CAE); printed circuit-board design; browser-based online collaboration; machine simulation; and comprehensive tool libraries make it well-suited for advanced manufacturing training.

“The software lets us do the design from start to finish and see it being machined in real time,” Segovia says. “We minimize error and material waste. For students, learning on Fusion 360 means they can come in right off the bat and start working and spend less time training. They already have the skills we’re looking for.”

Martin Ceja, head manufacturing specialist at Lawrence, says PCC’s advanced manufacturing training has enabled the company to bring in students the company would never previously have considered hiring. “Pasadena City College took Fusion 360 and really ran with it,” he says. Ceja notes that Lawrence has been able to expand into different sectors because these students brought new perspectives into the company gained from their exposure to ideas from other industries.

They also have helped Lawrence weather the pandemic, Ceja adds, because students arrive already accustomed to software that enables remote work and adept at solving problems autonomously.

What skills are needed for advanced manufacturing?

Advanced manufacturing training young man working in Gene Haas Center for Integrated Machining
Students at IALR’s Gene Haas Center for Integrated Machining receive a third-year level of learning in a workflow cell training lab after completing a two-year program at DCC. Image courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research. 

Community colleges are increasingly aware of the mismatch between the competencies they traditionally taught and what manufacturers need. “We saw that there was a huge gap between what the students were learning and what was actually happening in industry,” says Geoffrey Vincent, an instructor at Davis Technical College in Kaysville, UT. “This last year, we took a really hard look at our curriculum. We met with a lot of industry partners and found out what the current standard in industry is, and we rebuilt our curriculum around that. So our students are getting training for what is actually going on in the industry and not being shocked once they get out there.”

The Davis Tech team realized its old curriculum, like that of many community colleges, had been designed to train students for slow-moving, heavily manual machining. Davis hasn’t entirely abandoned those old-school techniques, but the new curriculum has been sharply refocused on automated design and manufacturing and computer numerical control (CNC) and designed to teach students to adapt to continual change as the lifecycles of digital tooling grow shorter and the impact of new technology on productivity drives frequent upgrades.

“It used to be that you learned this machine, and this would be the only machine you’d use for 30 years,” Vincent says. “That’s just not the case anymore.”

Danville Community College’s two-year and dual-enrollment high school programs usually include about 200 students and focus on fundamental machining skills. A student interested in gaining advanced manufacturing training can go through the third-year capstone program at the Gene Haas Center for Integrated Machining at IALR. They are required to have completed a work internship prior to entering this program so they have some real-world experience to draw from. They learn soft skills like industrial leadership, business terms, and communication.

For their finals, students are given a model and asked to come up with a production process that includes everything from materials to tooling to scheduling. Then they run a six-week live production in which each student plays a particular role in the manufacturing process for three days and then rotates.

What are the benefits of advanced manufacturing training?

In Danville, program students in sixth and seventh grades gain exposure to 3D-modeling programs such as Fusion 360. Once they reach high school, students learn about machining and the realities of a technical career. They can earn 40 units of college credit at Danville Community College while still in high school.

“The results we have seen out of the classroom with the students are absolutely amazing,” Williams says. “They go through a couple of 45-minute sessions, just getting used to the interface. After that, they have free rein and model what they want to. One of the best examples we’ve seen, a seventh-grade girl looked at a model of a fast-food restaurant online. She just looked at an image. She modeled that based on those images and then had a 3D-printed version, and this was within about two class periods, which equates to an hour and 30 minutes.”

Richie Barker, chief operating officer of Harlow FasTech, a local employer involved in both additive and subtractive manufacturing, has hired multiple people from the program. “Having access to the young adults who are coming through the program, it’s been the lifeblood of our company,” he says. “The big thing with the program and bringing on employees is there’s no learning curve. It’s the low cost of bringing in employees from the school, because you don’t have to spend six months, eight months, or even a year training them. Day one, they’re making you money.”

Beyond the career fast track for more (and younger) students, advanced manufacturing training promises to make manufacturing more inclusive. Davis Technical College, for example, has created a training program called CNC Enhanced, focused on aerospace machining for blind students.

“I found out about this program at Davis Tech by talking to somebody in vocational rehab,” says Marley Passey, a CNC Enhanced student who is functionally 98% blind. “A state employment officer came to me with information about a college that wanted to do a machining course for blind people. I was kind of speechless, and then it just exploded into pure excitement.”

Process automation, tailored operating procedures, and workspace adaptations ensure Passey’s safety in what otherwise might be a hazardous environment for a visually impaired operator. “Once you smell that coolant and you feel the fans blowing on you, it’s like, I know where I am—I know what I’m doing today,” she says. “My favorite thing that I’ve learned so far is how to run the machine. It’s huge, it’s loud, it’s dirty. It’s everything I love.”

The equipment is fitted with various assistive hardware and software adaptations. “I always had a decent understanding of space and shapes and how these shapes interact,” Passey says. “So I was able to pick up 3D-modeling software, like Fusion 360, pretty quickly.”

Why is advanced manufacturing training necessary in the US?

A robotics classroom at the Danville Community College Regional Center for Advanced Technology and Training
A robotics classroom at the Danville Community College Regional Center for Advanced Technology and Training. Image courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research. 

The US is facing a critical skills gap in manufacturing. A report by Deloitte estimates 2.4 million positions could be left unfilled between 2018 and 2028 due to an aging workforce and rapid technological advances. This skills shortage could cost $2.5 trillion if not adequately addressed.

In addition to increased automation, apprenticeships, and reskilling, advanced manufacturing training is a way to meet this demand as the industry evolves. Training programs are being developed nationwide to meet actual industry needs. Troy Simpson, director of advanced manufacturing at IALR, was a DCC faculty member of the legacy program. “The Danville-Pittsylvania County precision machining and advanced manufacturing pipeline is a result of several decades of curriculum development; investment by community, educational, and industry partners; and the desire to continue preparing our next generation of talent for tomorrow’s jobs,” he says. “This collaborative approach will provide a robust pipeline of manufacturing talent in the region for new and existing businesses for years to come.”

What are some examples of careers in advanced manufacturing?

Machining classroom at the Pittsylvania Career and Technical Center
High school students in DCC’s dual-enrollment program gain machining skills at facilities like the Pittsylvania Career and Technical Center (PCTC). Image courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research.

The Deloitte study gives a snapshot of where manufacturing is currently—and reimagines what manufacturing careers might look like by 2028. These careers are a mix of hard and soft skills, projecting what technology could bring to the industry: digital twin engineer, robot teaming coordinator, smart factory manager, drone data coordinator, and others.

Currently, many paths are available to students who have gained machining and other skill sets. “Our two-year machining graduates typically go out into entry-level machinist roles where they will be performing basic setup operations, production work, and some programming,” Williams says. “We’re trying to find leadership-style positions or engineering-technician roles for our third-year graduates. They end up in programming setup and operations positions.”

There are also opportunities in the public sector or for working in public-private partnerships with federal departments such as Energy or Defense. The Accelerated Training in Defense Manufacturing (ATDM) program, led by IALR and supported by DCC, will meet a Department of Defense initiative to close the skills gap in the defense industrial base workforce. It includes fast-track training in CNC machining, welding, metrology/quality assurance, and additive manufacturing.

New opportunities for expanding technologies are also on the horizon. IALR will also soon expand its rapid-launch amenities for manufacturing companies looking to establish a presence in Virginia and be a place for start-ups and incubators to use the latest technology. It will be the home of the future $25.5 million Center for Manufacturing Advancement, a collaborative space for technology companies and manufacturers to optimize processes, integrate emerging technologies, and potentially provide work experience for students completing the capstone program.

A new view of manufacturing

Manufacturing automation is reinforcing a more affirmative view of the manufacturing discipline. “We can’t just train one type of student,” Tucker says. “We can’t just give them the skills to work with their hands. We have to be able to plug them into a culture. They need to understand manufacturing and product flow. They have to understand math and tolerances and how what they do has an effect on everybody else in the company. When they understand that, we’re ahead of the curve.”

Blue-collar used to be a dirty word,” Harlow FasTech’s Barker says. “It was always, ‘Go to school—to university—do the four-year degrees.’ But you look at these kids coming out of these programs and earning a really high salary with very little debt, if any. And I think middle school is the right place to be starting, actually sharing and embracing how exciting the manufacturing community can be.”

This article has been updated. It was originally published in December 2020.

Peter Dorfman

About Peter Dorfman

Peter Dorfman is a freelance writer, blogger, and consultant based in Bloomington, IN.

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