Lessons Learned From Hosting a Manufacturing Skills Summit

By Rebecca L. Weber

One college in rural North Carolina builds on its existing programs with strong industry relationships.

Southeastern Community College (SCC), which serves a rural county in Whiteville, North Carolina, that has high unemployment rates, recently hosted a Manufacturing Skills Summit. The summit explored and clarified new directions for the college and its partners.

As a result, new workforce training should begin in spring 2016, and a new mechatronics engineering technology degree is under development for fall 2016 — and SCC President Anthony J. Clarke says he intends to repeat the summit at least once a year.

Building on existing manufacturing programs

These new ventures build on SCC’s existing programs. For example, 40 students have completed SCC’s Certified Production Technician (CPT) program, offered through its Workforce Development program since March 2014. Of those students, 20 have been placed into manufacturing jobs.

About 10 to 15 students graduate with an A.A.S. in electrical engineering technology annually. Usually, two to four will transfer to a four-year engineering technology program; eight to 10 report finding employment within the field.

Clarke began visiting local manufacturers when he became president of SCC, last November. Clarke brought practical expertise to building these relationships from his years working as a production engineer, supervisor and consultant with companies like General Mills and GE Aviation.

Clarke acknowledges that his background is an advantage but believes that demonstrating real interest in a company’s needs can trump industry knowledge. “I have this background, which is my hammer, but I don’t want to assume everything’s a nail,” he says.

Getting to know industry

For SCC to meet the evolving needs of local manufacturers, Clarke and his team required a deeper understanding of workforce skills and competencies. Literally showing up and asking questions not only elicited useful info about workforce skills, competencies and abilities but also demonstrated trust and set the tone for ongoing relationships.

Clarke normally met with plant managers or presidents during his on-site visits to see operations with SCC’s vice president of workforce development, workforce community development or the industrial training coordinator.

“I frame it in an economic development perspective, but also in the perspective of how we can help them improve their operations,” Clarke says. “Manufacturers will share with you what you ask them about, and they want to tell you about their companies.”

Questions don’t have to be highly technical. Here are some that Clarke asks during tours:

  • How many maintenance technicians do you have? What skills do they need?
  • Are you going to be more automated in the future? Are you thinking about modernizing or improving?
  • What type of competencies do the people need who work here?

A pattern appeared. “What we saw was [the need for] a multiskilled technician: someone who can do mechanical work, electrical controls, computer controls, hydraulics, pneumatics; someone who has an understanding of how an integrated system works,” Clarke says. “I think they had the thought, but we hadn’t articulated it. That’s something the community college can provide.”

The parties involved

The next step was to bring everyone together to confirm that building such a program had buy-in from all parties. SCC invited all the manufacturers in the county to come, as well as local officials, the economic development council, the board of directors and the board of trustees.

Two of the scheduled speakers were from private industry. “When a plant manager is talking about their turnover rate, and how pre-employment training helped reduce it, that’s a powerful message, as opposed to me getting up there and talking,” Clarke says.

The Columbus County Home Builders Association also attended the Summit and expressed the need for employees who have carpentry, masonry and plumbing skills. “What we’re going to do is address [the] construction trades through our workforce area with short-term training, and then we’re going to move into degree programs for instrumentation and automation,” Clarke says.

Another outcome was the need to link with high schools and to target potential students earlier, so they know about the opportunities as early as the freshman and sophomore years.

“The other key thing that’s going to come out of it is looking at giving credit for noncredit industry credentials,” Clarke says. “In Florida, they give college credit for people who get that [CPT]. We need to be doing the same thing.”

Words of wisdom

One thing Clarke will be cautious about in the future is asking for too many meetings. “I’m very sensitive to how much time we take of theirs,” he says. “It’s a deadline-driven, cost-efficiency type of environment that requires your full attention, so I hesitate to pull them out too often.”

Ultimately, Clarke sees SCC borrowing and building on existing relationships and best practices that have been established elsewhere. “In some ways, we’re catching up to what other colleges have done. At the same time, I think we’re starting to engage our manufacturers in helping us help them, so that we can hopefully improve the economic development here in the county.”

Rebecca L. Weber

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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