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NCI seeks to tap into industries' future
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Commonwealth Laminating employee Steve Young operates a computerized machine. Employees must constantly monitor the computerized machines to make sure they run properly.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Technology has changed manufacturing.

Computers now run machines, doing tasks that multiple people once did, so fewer employees are needed. And because workers now operate the computers, they must understand how the technology works.

Manufacturing today still has some manual labor, but much of the work involves “looking at a (computer) screen” to make sure machines are running properly, said William Wampler, executive director of the New College Institute (NCI).

Workers also need science, math and engineering skills and be able to work with colleagues, including managers, to develop new products and improve existing ones, industry recruiters and educators say.

“Advanced manufacturing” and “technology-intensive manufacturing” are among terms used to describe modern manufacturing processes, said Lisa Lyle, director of marketing and recruiting for the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. (EDC).

No matter what it is called, it requires manufacturing workers to have different skills than they once needed. Knowing how to operate a router (a rotating cutting tool) will be less in demand than understanding computer software.

NCI is working with local companies, other higher education institutions and economic developers to provide programs to teach students those skills.

In terms of training, “no one size fits all” because different companies that make different products need employees with different types of skills, said Mark Heath, the EDC’s president and chief executive officer.

As a result, most manufacturers now provide some type of training to their employees, officials said.

In the past, “a degree alone was the qualifier” as to whether a person was right for a job, but that no longer is the case, said Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) President Angeline Godwin.

Today, companies generally are more interested in whether employees can listen and communicate well and work in teams to do their jobs, Godwin said.

Critical thinking skills also are important, she said. That involves recognizing problems — or the potential for problems — and analyzing and interpreting information to correct or prevent the problems.

Because they are useful in virtually any industry, those are skills that the New College Institute (NCI) intends to focus on as it develops an advanced manufacturing curriculum, officials said.

NCI and PHCC recently started working together to persuade students to pursue the field.

In a partnership with Virginia State University, NCI in August launched the Academy for Engineering Technology. The academy is designed to prepare high school and college students to enroll in college-level engineering and technology degree programs or seek entry-level jobs with manufacturing companies using advanced technology.

Thirty-three high school students now are enrolled. All are skilled at science and math, which is a prerequisite, NCI officials said.

They are “the cream of the crop” among local high-schoolers, said Coray Davis, associate professor of engineering technology at Virginia State and a faculty member in residence at NCI.

The academy’s curriculum still is being developed. So far, though, students have taken courses on topics such as technology’s impact on society, engineering graphics (drafting with the use of electronic equipment) and logistics (how packages are tracked electronically in shipping and how raw materials are combined in factories to produce goods).

“We want to make sure ... we’re teaching the right things,” NCI Associate Director and Chief Academic Officer Leanna Blevins said, explaining why developing the curriculum takes time.

Virginia State is developing a curriculum to bring its engineering/technology degree programs to NCI. An exact time frame to get the programs started at the institute has not been set, but the schools want to set them up as soon as possible to help with recruiting efforts.

The intent is for students to be able to achieve a certain degree or level of certification, then pursue higher levels of education as they have time or interest so they become qualified for better-paying jobs, Davis said.

How will it be determined that NCI’s advanced manufacturing programs do a good job of training workers?

Heath, who also is vice chairman of NCI’s board, said the EDC will know when companies recruited to the community — both now and in the future — say “without hesitation” that they are hiring workers who have the skills needed to do their jobs.

“There is no book to pull off the shelf to show ‘this is how you do it,’” said Wampler. “We’re writing that book” essentially.

“If it was easy, everybody would have already figured it out,” Godwin said. “You have to know what you’re doing (intuitively), then have the guts to go do it.”

“We feel an urgency to get this (curriculum) up and running,” Heath said, “... to maintain the competitive advantage we have” in recruiting companies.

“Failure is not an option,” he added. “We’ve got to make this work.”

Wampler said NCI is developing the programs mostly for the benefit of local industries. Yet he acknowledged the possibility that students trained at the institute could join companies elsewhere.

There is no way to prevent that, he said.

Still, “we’re creating something that people outside (the community) will want to come here” and pursue, Wampler predicted.

Those students from elsewhere, especially if they decide to work here after they are educated, will make up for workers who leave, he said.


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