Emily Houston grew up in Kentucky. She was a good student and everyone told her she should go to college. So she did.
“I followed,” she says. “I didn’t really ask about any other options.”
When she got to the University of Kentucky, Houston didn’t really have a plan. She knew she wanted to travel someday, and thought she might major in some kind of health-related field, or maybe do biology.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do with any of these degrees,” she says. “I just felt like, I have to get a four-year degree. I have to get a bachelor’s.”
And for the first time, Houston was struggling academically. “High school wasn’t the best at preparing us for college-level material,” she says.
At the end of her sophomore year at the University of Kentucky, Houston made a decision that hundreds of thousands of college students make every year. She dropped out.
But unlike a lot of people who quit college and don’t have a plan, Houston knew exactly what she was going to do instead. Her brother was taking classes in something called the Advanced Manufacturing Technician (AMT) Program. She applied, and got in.
The AMT Program in Kentucky is a partnership between Toyota Motor Manufacturing and Bluegrass Community and Technical College. Students finish with an associate’s degree, but they never have to set foot on the Bluegrass campus. All of their classes are held at Toyota’s manufacturing plant in Georgetown, Kentucky.
Almost all of the students who complete the program end up with a job. The starting salary for an advanced manufacturing technician at Toyota is close to $65,000 a year. With overtime, pay can be as much as $80,000. That’s more than the median starting salary for graduates of the highest-earning bachelor’s degree programs in the United States, according to a recent report by PayScale.
Emily Houston says among her friends in high school, the idea of going to community college was “kind of a joke.”
But it didn’t seem like a joke once she learned about the AMT Program.
“I just kind of decided it wasn’t so much about the degree as it was about the job I was going to get with that degree,” says Houston.
Shortage of skilled workers
Toyota’s manufacturing plant in Georgetown, Kentucky employs about 7,200 full-time workers. The plant is the size of 156 football fields, making it the largest Toyota factory in North America. New cars start as huge balls of steel. Twenty hours later, they’re driven off the production line — a new car every 54 seconds.
One of the reasons Toyota is able to make cars so quickly is that robots do a lot of the work. But like all machines, robots break down. That’s where advanced manufacturing technicians come in. They fix and maintain the robots that help build cars.
Toyota has a hard time finding people with the skills to be advanced manufacturing technicians.
“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.
“They’re not talented at the level we need them to be talented,” says Parker.
This is not just a problem for Toyota. In a 2011 survey by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, 74 percent of executives at U.S. manufacturing companies said a shortage of workers for skilled production jobs was having a significant impact on their company’s ability to expand operations or improve productivity. The Manufacturing Institute estimated that as many as 600,000 skilled manufacturing jobs were going unfilled because of a lack of qualified workers.
Toyota’s solution is the AMT Program. And it’s not just designed to turn out graduates ready to work at Toyota.
“If you look at building cars and making Post-it Notes, there’s not a lot of difference,” says Terry McMichael, a supervisor at the 3M plant in Cynthiana, Kentucky. 3M makes Post-its and Scotch tape and thousands of other well-known products.
3M and Toyota both use robots to manufacture their products, so they both need advanced manufacturing technicians.
3M is a member of the Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education, also known as KY FAME. It’s a group of 15 manufacturers that partner with Toyota and Bluegrass on the AMT Program in Kentucky. The companies provide internships to AMT students, and offer jobs to graduates.
Members of KY FAME say it’s a challenge to recruit young people to the AMT Program because a lot of them don’t realize there are good jobs in manufacturing.
“It’s not seen as a real sexy career,” says David Cox, a general manager at the Toyota plant in Georgetown.
People think of factories as “deep, dark, dungeon-type environments,” says McMichael of 3M. They assume they’re hot and dirty, recalling images of textile mills and steel plants from their U.S. history books.
But modern factories are nothing like that, says McMichael. They’re clean and cool, not just to keep the workers happy, but to keep the robots happy too. Robots don’t run well in hot, dirty environments.
The Advanced Manufacturing Center
Students in the AMT Program take most of their classes in what’s called the Advanced Manufacturing Center. It’s a 12,000 square foot classroom built by Toyota to emulate a modern manufacturing facility. There are signs hanging from the ceilings that mark off areas where students learn things like “Machine Repair,” “Fluid Power” and “Motors and Controls.”
On a Wednesday morning in March, student Dalton Ballard is in the Motors and Controls area, working on the wiring for a switch that could activate a garage door opener. The lesson began with a short lecture from the instructor about how to wire up the switch.
But the learning really begins when the students try to wire the switch themselves. They each have a metal box with a power source and a bunch of blue wires. Ballard leans into the box, grabs a wire, glances up at the big white board in the corner full of diagrams and notes from the morning lecture, and then starts hooking up the switch. He says he likes this way of learning.
“I grew up on a farm so the way I’ve always been taught is with hands-on experience,” he says. “I really like it better if I get my hands in there, do it myself, rather then just sit there and read a book.”
Ballard was originally planning to go to Eastern Kentucky University for a bachelor’s degree in music. But his dad, who worked at Toyota, told him about the AMT Program. Ballard chose it over EKU because he wasn’t sure he’d be able to get a good job with a music degree.
“And if I took this program, there’s so many different jobs I could go into,” he says. “I could basically go anywhere I wanted to after this. And not only am I getting my schooling, I’m also getting paid for this too. And I’ll come out of this with no debt.”
Most of the students in the AMT Program are sponsored by one of the KY FAME companies. The companies get together each spring to go through applications. Then they hold what amounts to a sports team draft, with companies ranking their top picks and taking turns to select the applicants they want.
A sponsored student gets a part-time job with the sponsoring company. Wages vary. Toyota pays $12 an hour to start, and students can earn raises every six months based on their work performance and their grades in school. Toyota’s Dennis Dio Parker says the goal is for students to finish the program debt-free.
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.
Dalton Ballard, who is sponsored by Toyota and was enrolled in the public speaking class in the spring of 2014, says at first he didn’t understand why he needed to take public speaking.
“But as I’m going through this I’m really getting the basic public speaking skills down more,” he says. “And I really use them a lot when I am over 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.”
Ballard says having good speaking skills “really makes you look professional and your company look professional.”
In the public speaking course, students have to write their own speeches and deliver them in front of the class. Jaramy Gillis wrote a speech about how to gut a deer. He had just been moved to a new job on the Toyota factory floor, one that he says was kind of repetitive and boring. To pass the time, he practiced his speech over and over again out loud.
“Everyone on the line was laughing at me that day,” he says with a smile. But they were encouraging too, giving him feedback along the way. “That was the best speech I did for public speaking!”
Toyota’s Dennis Dio Parker says one benefit of the AMT Program is that students can see right away how skills and knowledge they’re learning in school apply at work. Everyone at Toyota works in teams, for example. They have to be able to communicate well and make presentations to their co-workers, says Parker. And advanced manufacturing technicians need to be able to read complex technical manuals, so English class is immediately relevant too, says Parker.
Another benefit of the AMT Program is when students struggle, they have people at work to call on for help. Parker says at Toyota’s plant in Texas (Toyota has AMT Programs in six other states), there are half a dozen engineers who regularly volunteer to tutor AMT students in math. And in Kentucky, when a few students were struggling with writing recently, there was someone to help.
“It turns out that one of our specialists, who works over in the plastics office, has a master’s degree in English,” says Parker. “That has nothing to do with what she does here, but she heard about the problem. She came over here and said, ‘Let me help the students.’”
Students in the AMT Program don’t get to choose what classes they take. All of the technical and general education classes are laid out for them.
“We don’t change the college’s rules for general education,” says Parker. “But within the selections, we will go in and choose what we think is the strongest course to prepare them to be more effective in the work world.”
In other words, if the college Toyota is working with requires two semesters of English and one semester of history for an associate’s degree, then students in the AMT Program will take two semesters of English and one semester of history.
But in Kentucky, for example, Toyota requires AMT students to take a course in the history of the state, over say, Greek history or World War II history. And in future years, AMT students may be required to take a class on the history of manufacturing. It’s a course proposed by a faculty member, in response to the AMT Program, says Carol Crawford, an administrator at Bluegrass Community and Technical College who works with the AMT Program.
“If we could get that class in, that would be perfect,” she says.
When asked if she has concerns about the fact that Toyota dictates all the courses students take for a Bluegrass associate’s degree, Crawford says no.
“The general education classes I took [in college], I didn’t see any connection to what I was learning as far as business and organizational management,” she says. “I remember in one of my math classes, I asked the question, ‘How do I apply this to work?’ The instructor, he couldn’t tell me how to do that.”
Crawford likes the way the AMT Program helps students see the link between academic and work skills.
But she says general education is important, even if not everything students learn connects immediately to work. The general education classes she took in college helped make her a “more rounded person.” Ultimately, she says, that makes her a better worker.
Toyota’s Dennis Dio Parker agrees that general education classes are essential. He says one of the reasons Toyota isn’t able to hire a lot of graduates out of community colleges and technical schools is that many of those schools tend to focus too narrowly on technical skills and not enough on critical thinking, problem-solving and communication. These are among the skills most needed in the labor market, according to an analysis of occupational data by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
Other things that don’t get taught in many colleges, says Parker, are the “soft” skills employers say are critical, such as showing up on time and persisting through challenges. Parker says students in the AMT Program learn those skills — or at least demonstrate them — by completing the curriculum and working three days a week at the same time.
Not all students who apply to the AMT program are accepted.
The program is seeking students who graduate in the upper half of their high school class and score at least a 23 on the ACT math test.
Parker says that’s the goal, but the program has to accept less; otherwise, it couldn’t fill the seats.
“We are educationally challenged in the U.S.,” he says. “We’re not running with the best in Europe, we’re not running with the best in Asia. Our average is below their average.”
To get accepted to the AMT program in Kentucky, an applicant must score at least a 19 on ACT math. Anything less than that, and a student would need remedial math classes, says Parker.
“We’ve got every course selected in this program from day one to day end. We’ve got every minute of their time used up,” he says. “There’s no time for a remedial course. If they have to have remediation, they can’t start the program.”
A lot of applicants don’t qualify. Carol Crawford of Bluegrass Community and Technical College says this is a surprise to a lot of people. For years, people assumed manufacturing jobs were for people who were “good with their hands,” she says, but not necessarily “academically superior.”
“The world has changed,” says Crawford. “They have to be able to perform academically. They can’t just come in and be good with their hands.”
Wherever they’re willing to send me
Emily Houston started the AMT program in the Fall of 2013. She is sponsored by 3M, and works three days a week in the department that manufactures Scotch tape.
Houston is happy with her decision to quit the University of Kentucky. She says she’s doing well in the AMT Program and expects she’ll be able to get a job at 3M when she’s done. The starting pay is the same as Toyota’s — about $80,000 with overtime, says 3M’s Terry McMichael. That’s a lot of money for a 22-year old, especially in Georgetown, Kentucky.
But Houston isn’t planning to stay in Kentucky for long.
“With 3M being a global company, I could get on full time here and then transfer to another plant in California or in France, or wherever they’re willing and able to send me,” she says.
Being able to travel was always one of her goals. For most of her life, she thought getting a bachelor’s degree was going to be the way to do that. But it turns out knowing how to fix robots might be just as good.
“I know so many horror stories of psychology majors who are in debt, working as waitresses,” she says.
She thinks colleges need to do a better job helping students think about how they’re going to use their degrees to make a living. She says when she was at the University of Kentucky, it was hard to get guidance. Neither her advisor nor her professors seemed to have much time. They had hundreds of students to deal with. She felt like a number.
“When you go in with a question like, ‘What do I do with a biology degree?’ They’re like, ‘Oh, you can go to medical school. You can go ahead and get a job with the bachelor’s degree.’ It was a lot of generalizations,” she says. “It never got specific.”
Houston says one of the reasons she quit UK is because she couldn’t see why she was getting a degree. With the AMT Program, it was very clear to her.
The AMT Program in Kentucky started in 2010; the first class graduated in 2012.
Toyota had hoped a lot of the graduates would want to continue on in a bachelor’s of engineering program that Toyota has established with the University of Kentucky. It’s called the AME Program, or Advanced Manufacturing Engineering.
But so far, only two AMT graduates students have enrolled in the AME Program. Parker says he’s not surprised. As advanced manufacturing technicians, “they’re making good money,” he says.
When asked whether she plans to go on for a bachelor’s degree, Emily Houston says, “Definitely not immediately. I’m burned out on school.”
She says someday she might want to pursue a bachelor’s degree in engineering. But she wants to work and travel for a few years first.
Maybe, she says, she’ll never need another degree. The kinds of skills she’s learning in the AMT Program are in high demand — all over the world.
This essay is a product of the larger radio documentary Ready to Work: Reviving Vocational Ed, which you can listen to in its entirety on http://www.americanradioworks.org/ or on our podcast feed (iTunes).