KY FAME program created by Toyota and KCTCS is retooling student-worker education to create pipeline employers can rely on

Pioneered six years ago, a quickly expanding system of Kentucky employer-educator partnerships is paying student workers to learn advanced manufacturing skills that can maintain growth in the state’s increasingly significant industrial sector.

It’s an Americanized update of the apprenticeship approach to workforce development that German and Japanese industries have relied on successfully for generations – and it was created in central Kentucky.

Manufacturing is one of the fastest growing sectors in Kentucky’s recovering economy, said Josh Benton, executive director of workforce development in the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development. And the growth of career opportunities among Kentucky’s leading manufacturers is developing well ahead of the recovery of other industries, Benton said.

National studies chart a constant and steady rise in career opportunities in every state, according to Greg Higdon, president and CEO of the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers.

The commonwealth’s manufacturing gross revenues are up over 12 percent since 2009 with global exports fueling a large portion of the sector’s renaissance, Higdon said. Data show some U.S. manufacturing career growth is due to many companies bringing production operations back to North America, he said, but a more significant reason is that skilled workers from the baby boom generation are reaching retirement age.

However, human resource departments at company after company are finding it difficult to locate qualified job candidates in their locations to fill these well-paying open positions, Benton said. It’s a common concern among KAM and cabinet leaders that there are few applicants with the skill sets to perform today’s highly specialized tasks.

“Employers realized that we have fallen behind from the days when a company posts a job opening and is overwhelmed by qualified applicants,” Benton said.

The good news is that Kentucky’s private-sector manufacturers have taken a leadership role in addressing this issue, said Kim Menke, external and government affairs manager for Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing of North America. Menke is a lead spokesperson for a unique partnership between manufacturing firms and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System that has captured the attention of neighboring states and the U.S. Department of Labor.

This collaborative is the result of an employer-educator partnership (EEP) program pioneered in central Kentucky six years ago. The concept has been met with such enthusiasm in the private sector and at the state government level that the Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (KY FAME) is expanding throughout the commonwealth.

Kentucky’s solution to a national problem

With reported U.S. manufacturing job openings topping 1.5 million, the model is spreading beyond state borders, too. Toyota has applied it to its other manufacturing sites in North America, Menke said, adding, “We are changing the paradigm of how we use education to meet the current and future needs of manufacturing.”

The experiment that eventually grew into KY FAME started at Toyota’s Georgetown plant with the participation of Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

Benton labels KY FAME the “next generation in technical training” for achieving a career track in advanced manufacturing. Dianne Leveridge, Ph.D., director of technical programs for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, agrees.

Today, KY FAME is a partnership of regional manufacturers and college educators developing degree programs that constitute a pipeline of qualified candidates for high-technology careers in manufacturing, Leveridge said. Students accepted into a KY FAME-based degree program will be employed by a company while attending college classes.

A key feature of this partnership is that it’s employer-led, she said. Companies identify to KCTCS professors their general needs for skilled specialists and, together, they craft an academic program that combines educating students on core concepts of manufacturing and professional behaviors with on-the-job experience and training. The usual weekly schedule has student-employees putting in three full work days at their sponsor firm and two full days in specialized KCTCS classrooms.

“Manufacturers will tell you that they were accustomed to luring talent away from each other,” Leveridge said. “KY FAME offers a better approach. The partner firms in a KY FAME chapter agree to participate in the education and preparation of students and create the pipeline of skilled professionals from college to their ranks.”

Gov. Steve Beshear formally adopted the pioneering program as a statewide initiative after being urged by Toyota Motor Manufacturing, 3M, Link-Belt and other leading manufacturers in the region. KAM and the Cabinet for Economic Development gladly added their support, said Higdon.

“The efforts of industry leaders and educators to craft this initiative is a critical component to developing a work-ready constituency coming out of our secondary and postsecondary education system. Soon Kentucky will have graduates ready to go to work in the modern manufacturing sector,” Higdon said.

By fall 2015, Leveridge said, the new KY FAME chapters will begin their apprenticeship-type operations in Louisville, Northern Kentucky, Greater Owensboro and the Lincoln Trail area of Elizabethtown and Bardstown.

KY FAME became a freestanding entity in January. Gov. Beshear appointed a state board and announced three new chapters had formed; the fifth came in May. Planned next steps are to establish KY FAME chapters in Paducah and Murray in the west, Bowling Green in the south and Maysville, Pikeville and Somerset in the east.

Concepts come from Toyota and Germany

The basic program concept itself is not new, Leveridge said. The EEP partnership that grew into the Bluegrass Chapter of KY FAME has been an evolving experiment in central Kentucky since 2009. KY FAME’s genesis arose from two particular threads, she said.

The first, and arguably most significant, occurred about six years ago.

Menke, who was in on the development, said Toyota recognized early on a need for a new approach to employee training. Typical of the company’s organized and efficient management style, he said, the company established measurement benchmarks and approached potential partners about creating a solution. In this case, the need was to develop the best program to produce globally competitive advanced manufacturing technicians in their area.

Toyota, along with other central Kentucky manufacturing industry partners such as 3M and Link-Belt, approached educators at Bluegrass Community Technical College in Lexington to establish the Bluegrass Manufacturing Collaborative in 2009.

Leveridge became involved through her role then with the University of Kentucky’s College of Engineering as director of Project Lead the Way – an effort to encourage secondary school students to become interested in science, technology, engineering and math studies (STEM).

“We knew at the time that (Kentucky private sector) manufacturing and technology interests needed to extend a hand into secondary and higher education, but we were still unsure about what that approach would look like,” she said.

In the first two years, a cohort of students began enrolling into initial Bluegrass Manufacturing Collaborative education-training classes sponsored by Toyota. As that training cohort evolved into an organized program, other manufacturers committed to sponsor students as well.

The foundation of the degree program is based on the Toyota Way and its 11 fundamental elements: five core manufacturing exercises and six personal behaviors. Core manufacturing concepts include a safety culture, the “5-S” system of efficient workplace organization, “lean” system thinking and problem-solving skills, Leveridge said, emphasizing that any general list is an extreme oversimplification of the educational curriculum KY FAME presents.

For example, safety culture involves much more than obeying workplace safety rules; students learn to think critically about their work environment and identify risks, she said. And the “5-S” efficiency system originates from a Japanese philosophy on organizing and sustaining a productive work environment.

Professional behaviors taught focus on basic workplace skills such as effective team work, communications, taking initiative, developing productive workplace relationships across departments and other dynamic workplace practices, Higdon said.

“I don’t think we can emphasize enough the importance of developing professional skills. The old days of walking in, punching a time clock and standing at one machine are over in the manufacturing sector,” he said.

“There is a perception that workers in manufacturing don’t need skills because the machinery does all the work, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is critical for workers to bring critical thinking and teamwork to the table to ensure that the machinery continues to produce high-quality products in the most cost-efficient manner possible.”

Students in the first cohort who completed the program earned associate degrees in applied science in industrial technology.

The point is to develop employees who actively engage themselves in the progress of their company, Leveridge said. Firms want employees who contribute; they don’t want automatons who only want to perform tasks day-after-day and return home.

The initial program that developed, she said, was delivered, taught and implemented by Toyota within a “college classroom environment,” but with an approach different from the traditional classroom.

Menke described the classroom as a simulated high technology manufacturing environment where core concepts are taught by demonstration and presented with a practical application so that they are a skill set.

This employer-educator partnership evolved in five years into the KY FAME program.

Toyota’s model has been the most influential aspect of the KY FAME partnership, Benton said, but Kentucky has learned a great deal also from its developing relationship with the German Chamber of Commerce.

Germany’s dual system of education and hands-on experience “mirrors the KY FAME model very closely,” he said.

Employer-led academic degrees

Benton and Leveridge both stress that the degree programs developed through the EEP partnership aim to not limit the ambitions of students. The concepts taught “can be a leaping off point for students to transfer into bachelors and masters programs in engineering and business,” said Leveridge.

Most of Kentucky’s state universities are on board with KY FAME’s goals.

“It’s a unique program and a definite change over the way that education is delivered, since it caters directly to the needs of the workplace professional,” Benton said.

Because employers lead the program, educators and real-world managers are collaborating in a more deeply integrated way than ever, Leveridge said, including the monitoring of specific students’ progress.

“If a student can’t report to work for whatever reason, that information is shared with the school,” she said. “Conversely, if a student is having difficulty grasping an academic concept in class, the educator informs the employer.”

The real-world application employers provide for skills being taught in class helps faculty as well as students make the connection between concepts presented in school and what is done in the workplace.

“Education and employer are both invested in the success of the employee-student,” she said.

Meanwhile, participation in KY FAME requires that employers reimburse their student-workers with a fair wage, which they can apply toward their education costs for the program. This reduces participants’ student debt, Benton said. Some finish their degree with no student loan debt.

AMT program arose similarly

Another main element of the KY FAME template was incorporated last December, Leveridge said, when the KCTCS Board of Trustees adopted the Advanced Manufacturing Technician track within the system’s industrial maintenance technology program.

Also developed as a partnership between Toyota and BCTC, the AMT program grew out of a common need among manufacturing firms for employees with the skills to operate, program and maintain the new generation of digital automation technology. AMT student instruction, such as how to program an assembly line robot, takes place uniquely at TMMK’s sprawling Georgetown site where Toyota built a 12,000-s.f. classroom to simulate a modern manufacturing floor.

The 23 firms that participate in what is now the Bluegrass Chapter of KY FAME all have ongoing needs for specialists skilled equally in mechanics and in manipulating computer programming processes.

Terry McMichael, maintenance focus team advisor at 3M Manufacturing in Cynthiana and Bluegrass chapter president of KY FAME, has been involved in the AMT degree program from the beginning. He hired the first sponsored student to complete the five-semester program. Two more 3M-sponsored students are now working toward AMT degrees.

“We have been following the progress our students as they moved through the program, and they are each developing a firm grasp of the skills we need from them,” McMichael said. “We recruited them directly from the high schools in our local community, and I’ve been very pleased with their performance.”

Menke said this program began with training students in industrial maintenance because the skills were an immediate need the partner firms shared.

“The requirements for a multiskilled maintenance professional are fairly uniform across the board,” he said. “But when you look at other firms specializing in tool and die production, that requires a whole new level of skill sets.”

Keeping complex and expensive production machines operational, trouble-shooting breakdowns and repairing them can no longer be accomplished by ordinary mechanics, Leveridge said. Socket wrenches and screwdrivers are still used, but perhaps more important is an understanding of programming processes and problem-solving skills.

The AMT degree program aims to create a pipeline of Kentucky professionals with this specific skill set plus an ability to innovate, especially in identifying and implementing cost-cutting improvements. These kinds of professionals are in high demand, Leveridge said.

It has been exciting to see manufacturers embrace the idea with such enthusiasm, said McMichael. All of the active KY FAME chapters will have AMT degree programs beginning in the fall.

McMichael views the willingness of all these manufacturers to work together as another critical benefit of the KY FAME partnership. The Northern Kentucky chapter could soon have about 75 companies committed to participate.

“All that experience, all that involvement in one place,” Menke said. “Everybody brings something important to the table. Think about what that means to Kentucky’s reputation as a global manufacturing leader. Implementing these shared ideas raises the standard of manufacturing quality in Kentucky and produces a population of professionals other companies want to hire.”

When the Northern Kentucky chapter hosted a KY FAME open house to recruit qualified high school students, firms such as Hahn Automation, L’Oreal, Wagstaff and others set up demonstrations. The technology on display clearly had an impact.

“Parents called in after that asking how they can get their kid into the program,” Leveridge said.

This consequence will be a long-term boon to the retention and growth of existing companies in the commonwealth and to attracting new firms to establish here, Menke said.

Story by Josh Shepherd (The Lane Report)

© 2016 Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education