As New England prepares for growth in the advanced manufacturing sector, some companies with an existing stronghold in industries like aerospace, navigation and precision machining struggle to find skilled workers. Advanced to Advantageous: The Case for New England’s Manufacturing Revolution, an April 2015 report by The New England Council and Deloitte Consulting LLP, says that, while the forecast is promising, there are very real challenges and shortcomings — not least of which are underskilled workers, cheap overseas competitors and an aging workforce.
The report’s action plan for New England includes six key recommendations, each of which includes suggested actions for implementation by educators, policymakers, manufacturers and state and regional project management offices.
Rebranding an existing program
Lucille Jordan, president of Nashua Community College (NCC), in New Hampshire, says the college already is rebranding to a generation that, the report warns, might see precision manufacturing as a “dirty, dark, dangerous and declining” field.
NCC had a manufacturing program for about 40 years, but it needed a major overhaul. Now, Jordan says, “It’s not advanced manufacturing. It’s precision manufacturing. That’s that middle gap that everyone’s looking for.”
These days, when prospective students visit from technical high schools, they often express interest in touring the automotive labs. But when they see natural light flooding rooms filled with new equipment valued at nearly $1 million, such as 3-D printers and state-of-the-art lathes and CNC mini mills, many of the students want to pursue manufacturing. “All the old machines are gone,” says Jordan.
Since installing the new equipment and adding a precision manufacturing degree three years ago, enrollment at NCC has increased 133 percent. In the first class, the average student age was 27; this year, it’s down to 23, indicating that millennials see precision manufacturing as a high-tech field with a future.
Selling the program to parents usually takes a bit more convincing, Jordan says. To get buy-in from family members, the college focuses on explaining that precision manufacturing is a high-paying field with employment prospects in the region, and that successful students can transfer to a four-year institution (usually at the nearby University of Massachusetts Lowell) to earn a bachelor’s in engineering
Industry partners and career pathways
NCC did not have a pre-existing relationship with General Electric, but when the manufacturing giant looked at numerous colleges, they decided that Nashua would be a win-win partnership worthy of investment.
GE’s aviation internship holds important appeal for many students. The company selects eight to 10 of the program’s top students, who work on-site on Fridays and during the last semester of senior year.
The first pilot group of students will graduate this spring, and Jordan says all of the interns have indicated that they plan to accept jobs at GE that pay about $28 per hour, plus options for tuition reimbursement for further studies.
Innovative support for advanced manufacturing
Partnering with industry is necessary for most community colleges to renovate and re-equip a high-tech lab. “We also had significant support from the governor and legislators,” Jordan says.
But being financially resourceful necessitates more than just new equipment. Proper lab access in small groups, and with skilled supervision, is also expensive under most conditions.
At NCC, all students put in a lot of hours in the labs, which stay open until 11 p.m. Jordan compares the experience to a nursing clinical.
Labs are capped at just eight students each. NCC has recruited a team of highly qualified lab assistants, many of whom are retired engineers who want to give back to the community.
“The old program was assembly-line work. Now they have to be creative,” says Jordan. “The push-button jobs are always going to stay overseas.”