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 a good investment at all.
An engineering degree from a highly selective college may continue to retain some cachet. But stratospheric tuition and uncertain job prospects have eroded the perceived value of second-tier institutions for students and their prospective employers. This moment of reckoning for four-year colleges has also reawakened recognition for US community-college systems—which can provide focused training, in less time, on skills that communities need most.
For example, 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.
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 thanks to 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.
Two local leaders key to this model’s success are Tim Robertson, technical program manager of IALR’s new Accelerated Training in Defense Manufacturing program, and Jeremiah Williams, director of integrated machining technology at DCC. Robertson and Williams came to education from industry jobs to help create a path for urgently needed manufacturing workers with advanced skills. They work with 30 industry partners to identify the skills local industries need, matching course offerings and training programs with those requirements.
The two have also provided technical guidance and support to Virginia’s 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 encompasses many of the state’s southern rural counties and begins exposing students as early as middle school to in-demand careers in advanced materials; IT/cybersecurity; precision machining; robotics, automation, and mechatronics; 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.”
Program students in sixth and seventh grades gain exposure to 3D-modeling programs such as Autodesk 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 DCC while still in high school.
“The results we have seen out of the classroom with the students are absolutely amazing,” Robertson 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, COO 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.”
While Robertson and Williams have helped guide much of the system’s recent development, they stress that the roots of the program go back half a century, beginning with a strong CTE and dual-enrollment high school program.
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.”
The GO TEC program, piloted with partners in 2019 in three local schools, is now in 17 middle schools, and Robertson and Williams hope to help roll it out across the state.
DCC’s two-year and dual-enrollment high school programs usually include about 200 students and focus on fundamental machining skills. Students 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 such as 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.
“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.”
Affiliated programs serve high school and college faculty and industry professionals. The Haas Technical Education Center is a training and certification program conducted by DCC at the Gene Haas Center for Integrated Machining at IALR. Trainees include high school and college precision-machining instructors, who can learn additional skills and earn National Institute for Metalworking Skills certification.
The Accelerated Training in Defense Manufacturing (ATDM) program, led by IALR and supported by DCC, will meet the needs of 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.
IALR will also soon expand its rapid-launch amenities for manufacturing companies looking to establish a presence in Virginia and 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.
“Blue collar … used to be a dirty word,” 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.”