Learning and Working at the Factory

Robots make the cars at Toyota’s Kentucky manufacturing plant, but human technicians are needed to maintain and fix the robots. Unable to find enough skilled workers, Toyota has partnered withBluegrass Community and Technical College to train advanced manufacturing technicians, reports American RadioWorks.

Toyota and other Kentucky-based manufacturers sponsor the Advanced Manufacturing Technician (AMT) program. Students work part-time on the factory floor, earn an associate degree and qualify for jobs that start at close to $65,000 a year. With overtime, AMT graduates can earn $80,000 a year.

“We can’t just go out and throw up some ads and hire some skilled people. They’re not out there,” says Dennis Dio Parker, an assistant manager at Toyota who helped create the AMT Program.

Parker says high schools and colleges in the U.S. are failing to turn out graduates with the mix of technical expertise, problem-solving ability and communication skills that companies like Toyota need.

The Manufacturing Institute estimated that as many as 600,000 skilled manufacturing jobs were going unfilled because of a lack of qualified workers. In a 2011 survey, 74 percent of manufacturing executives said the lack of skilled workers is impeding expansion and productivity improvements.

Students in the AMT Program learn to program a robot at the Advanced Manufacturing Center in Georgetown, Kentucky. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Students in the AMT Program learn to program a robot at the Advanced Manufacturing Center in Georgetown, Kentucky. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Fifteen companies in the Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education, also known as KY FAME, offer part-time jobs to AMT trainees. Each spring, the companies “hold what amounts to a sports team draft, with companies ranking their top picks and taking turns to select the applicants they want,” writes Hanford.

Many young people don’t realize that manufacturing is a good career, says Terry McMichael, a supervisor at the 3M plant in Cynthiana, Kentucky. They think of factories as “deep, dark, dungeon-type environments.” Not any more. The robots work best when it’s cool and clean.

AMT applicants must earn at least a 19 on ACT’s math test. Many don’t meet that standard, says Carol Crawford of Bluegrass Community and Technical College.  “They have to be able to perform academically. They can’t just come in and be good with their hands.”

Students in the AMT Program work three days a week and go to classes the other two. Their school day is eight hours, just like their work day, and there is no summer break. The program takes five semesters to complete.

In addition to taking technical classes like “Electrical Motor Controls” and “Introduction to Robots,” students in the AMT Program take general education classes like math, humanities and public speaking.

AMT students see how skills and knowledge they learn in class apply at work, says Parker. Manufacturing technicians work in teams, so they need good communications skills. They also need to read complex technical manuals.

Dalton Ballard, who is sponsored by Toyota, didn’t understand why he was required to take public speaking.  But he’s found he can use the skills at the plant. “I’m better at talking about what I’m doing there, rather than just ‘ah, that part moves and ah, that one extends a little bit.’ Now I can actually explain it.”

© 2016 Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education