Carmakers, Community Colleges Launch Curriculum For Skilled Workers

MUNICH, GERMANY - OCTOBER 17: Workers construct BMW 3 series cars in the Munich BMW plant during a guided tour after the open
MUNICH, GERMANY - OCTOBER 17: Workers construct BMW 3 series cars in the Munich BMW plant during a guided tour after the opening ceremony of BMW World on October 17, 2007 in Munich, Germany. BMW World is a representative, architecturally spectacular company building next to the BMW headquarter. It is multifunctional, combining car delivery and museum. (Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images)

An unusual coalition of competing automakers launched a community college curriculum on Wednesday to jointly train the next generation of skilled workers. The effort reflects companies' increasingly close collaboration with community colleges like the one near the Ford Motor Co. headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., where the program will debut.

The idea is to take an unconventional approach to solve a growing problem for U.S. manufacturers: how to train workforces at a time when the rest of the world is becoming more competitive.

In response to that challenge, some sworn enemies in the marketplace -- Toyota, Ford, and GM, among others -- decided to work together to create "a technical core curriculum that basically would work for all auto manufacturers to support their skilled workforces," said Dennis Parker, an assistant manager in Toyota's North American Production Support Center in Georgetown, Ky.

"I think it is unusual," Parker said. "It represents a new level of U.S. manufacturing working together in areas where it has meaning to work together, to give us a stronger manufacturing stance as the rest of the world becomes more competitive with us."

Toyota, with the Kentucky Community & Technical College System, helped found the Automotive Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative in 2005. The automaker's largest assembly plant in the U.S. is in Georgetown, Ky., so the local collaboration was natural. But AMTEC didn't stop there. It also signed up Ford, General Motors and the automakers' suppliers.

It has taken eight years and a National Science Foundation grant for AMTEC to get to the point where its leaders felt comfortable enough to debut lessons from its curriculum for maintenance mechatronics, which combines mechanical, electronic, computer, software, control and systems design engineering. In that time, the auto industry has undergone a dramatic upheaval, with the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies and the remarkable turnaround. The American Big Three are now retraining skilled workers to become more flexible and to take on a variety of tasks, much like Japanese automakers.

In decades past, skilled auto workers would often find a profession through a union apprenticeship -- welder, machinist, pipefitter -- and stay with it for life. Now, however, automakers are asking those specialists to become "multi-skilled" -- to know a little bit of everything. And some production line workers are learning bits and pieces of skilled work.

The AMTEC lessons -- or "modules" as they're called in industry jargon -- are designed to teach bits and pieces of skills to workers. They come with assessments to see what workers already know. The collaborative has also designed a manufacturing simulator computer to give students a way to practice the work away from the shop floor.

The modules' first test run: Henry Ford Community College, not far from Ford headquarters in Dearborn.

"In southeast Michigan, where we've really been hit hard by the economy, we've really been growing ... trying to stay abreast," said Gail Mee, president of the college. The latest in the auto industry has been a "remarkable kind of cultural transformation inside the manufacturing workplace."

"You need more highly qualified generalists and the college has to find a new role," Mee said.

The modules fulfill that role. They are designed to be useful for any of the large auto manufacturers and portable to community colleges across the country. They are meant to be used by a wide variety of students, from those with no exposure to the auto industry, to those entering a "pipeline" to work at the manufacturers, to longtime employees who need to burnish new skills.

The curriculum, said Parker of Toyota, "was developed from the ground-up, based on studies from the automotive manufacturing floor."

"We're going to bring new workers into the field. We're going to use it to upskill our current workforce, make it a stronger, more flexible workforce," Parker said.

But it will not necessarily be easy for everyone.

Tony Veggian, an industrial hydraulic repairman at a Severstal NA, which provides steel to the Big Three, said learning new trades after 14 years at work has been "an uphill battle."

"It's essentially like taking someone with an accounting degree and say now we're going to put you in this electrical position," Veggian said. "To the company's credit, they have committed a tremendous amount of resources into the training of their employees, but like many such endeavors the learning curve is steep," he wrote in an email. Veggian said he thinks that people at Henry Ford are working hard to provide him with an education, too -- but wishes the old model, when unions were able to guarantee good, highly specialized middle class jobs for life -- wasn't disappearing.

Although employment is rising across the auto industry, workers in the skilled trades now make up about 20 percent of the production workforce for the Big Three, compared with 25 percent in years past, estimated Kristin Dziczek, director of the Labor & Industry Group at the Center for Automotive Research.

"The manufacturers are changing the composition of their workforce to deal with more competitive realities," Dziczek said. "And the community colleges are making sure that the workers are here have the skills the manufacturers are looking for. They're helping keep the jobs here."