Rethinking Workforce Training

Companies of all types and sizes have long boasted that employees are their greatest asset. For some this might be little more than a trite platitude. But even for them, the quality of their workers—whether they’re called “resources,” “team members” or “talent”—reflects directly on bottom line results.      

So how does this jibe in a world in which automation and electronics pervade nearly every aspect of our lives, including the design, development and production of vehicles? Not to worry, workers are far from obsolete and good people are more important than ever. But the road to Manufacturing 4.0, where machines communicate with humans and each other, requires a new approach, new skills and lots of training. In fact, the National Association of Manufacturers has warned that a growing “skills gap” could result in as many as 2-million jobs going unfilled by 2025.

To help prepare the next-generation of workers, companies increasingly are partnering with colleges and high schools to develop curriculums that better match changing industry needs. A good example of this is the one-year-old THINC College & Career Academy in LaGrange, Georgia. The public-private charter program, which allows students from local high schools to earn credit from three technical colleges and universities, is run more like a business than a school.

“We want to instill leadership characteristics and qualities as well as entrepreneurship thinking so students graduate understanding what business is about and what it takes to be successful,” stresses chief executive officer Kathy Carlisle. The philosophy is underscored by her CEO title (rather than “principal”) and the school’s focus on industry experience over teaching credentials for the rest of the staff.

A steering committee, made up of more than 100 community members, worked with local businesses to develop THINC’s courses. A primary goal was to address what the group identified as a major disconnect between the skillsets employers want and those taught by traditional high schools and colleges. Co-located on the campus of West Georgia Technical College, THINC provides a professional setting for students, who must adhere to workplace dress and behavioral codes. This helps create a sense of purpose for students—many of whom had been deemed to be “at-risk” for dropping out of their high schools—and better prepares them for college and careers. Carlisle says THINC has a 99 percent attendance rate and fewer discipline-related cases than other schools.  

THINC students can take courses in health science, mechatronics, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, energy, business and marketing. In addition to academic classes, they are taught and graded on so-called “soft skills.” These include everything from adaptability, teamwork, problem solving, initiative, attention to detail, and productivity to attendance, communication, cooperation, respect, appearance, attitude and sense of urgency.

THINC receives about $1.4-million in state funds and $600,000 in industry contributions per year. Kia Motors is one of the school’s primary benefactors, providing more than $3.5-million in funding, equipment and scholarships. The automaker, which opened an assembly plant in nearby West Point, Georgia, in 2009, also works closely with Georgia’s Quick Start training program, SAE International and Georgia Tech University to train and recruit workers. It now employs 3,000 people, including 2,400 hourly workers who work alongside 400 robots to build the company’s hot-selling Optima sedan and Sorrento utility vehicle along with its Hyundai Santa Fe twin. 

To help train new recruits, Kia uses simulation models developed by Siemens. This can be especially beneficial to maintenance workers, who can isolate individual parts of a machine to see how they operate and identify potential problem areas. In September, Siemens donated $100,000 in equipment to THINC to support careers in manufacturing and engineering. The presses and machines, which are identical to the equipment Siemens supplies Kia and other automakers, will be used in THINC’s mechatronics laboratory, where students will be trained how to program robotic movements. Students also will be mentored by Siemens and Kia engineers.

“These types of partnerships are critical,” notes Raj Batra, who heads Siemens’ Digital Factory unit in the U.S. “With the job market changing rapidly, more practical hands-on training is needed to keep pace and ensure we all succeed.” 

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With more than 25 years of experience, Steve Plumb has covered every aspect of the auto industry as an industry writer, editor and marketing professional. He was the founding editor of AutoTech Daily and rejoined the AutoBeat team in 2015. He previously was the editorial director for a leading public relations company.