By Silvia Ascarelli, MarketWatch
LAFAYETTE, Ind. (MarketWatch) — America’s factories are facing a shortage of skilled workers. And Nic Herrera and Denise Flores are seen as part of the solution.
They’re learning how to program robots and troubleshoot problems on the production line through a two-year work-and-college program run by Vincennes University and four manufacturing companies in Lafayette, Ind.
The program, which is beginning its third year, is part of a changing mindset among factory managers — and a changing workforce. Indiana, the state most dependent on manufacturing, could be short as many as 1 million manufacturing employees by 2025 as longtime workers retire and as employers complain of difficulties in finding new workers with the right skills.
“We realized if we want the workforce of the future, we’re going to have to get our hands in it. We can’t just wait for it to happen,” said Brad Rhorer, who has championed the program as assistant senior manager of human resources at Subaru of Indiana Automotive, owned by Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. /zigman2/quotes/203522406/delayed JP:7270 -1.55% in Japan.
Subaru is one of a handful of companies that have teamed up with Vincennes to create a program that mixes classes and work. In the Lafayette “Advanced Internship in Manufacturing” program, or AIM, students learn by doing, splitting their time between the classroom and the factory floor. They graduate in just over two years with an associate’s degree in computer-integrated manufacturing technology and, most likely, a job offer in maintenance from their factory employer.
Similar programs are popping up around the country, in what is an American twist on Germany’s much-vaunted apprenticeship program. Vincennes runs similar maintenance-focused programs built around Toyota’s /zigman2/quotes/200537742/composite TM -1.59% Indiana factory, 30 miles south of Vincennes, and a group of smaller companies in Jasper, an hour southeast of Vincennes. All of them, says Donna Taylor Bouchie, who oversees them as director of Vincennes’ InternPlus program, have more applicants than slots. Manufacturers help decide who gets selected.
“There is a rather large number of employers saying they want something or need something like this. But it is difficult to get them to organize.”
Chuck Johnson, president of Vincennes University
To be sure, the programs on their own won’t solve the worker shortage. The latest group to start the AIM program numbers only 24. Some students are fresh out of high school, and many others have been working for several years. Vincennes is looking for ways to expand the program, Bouchie said.
Recruiting for the next class has already begun. Tom Schott, the AIM program’s coordinator in Lafayette, will visit 30 high schools in a 12-county area.
“There is a rather large number of employers saying they want something or need something like this,” said Chuck Johnson, the president of Vincennes University. “But it is difficult to get them to organize. It takes industry stepping up and making a time commitment and a personnel commitment.”
There’s no guarantee the students will stay in manufacturing. Vincennes officials say the program isn’t aimed at top high-school students considering a four-year engineering degree from Purdue University, in neighboring West Lafayette. “We have discovered there is a difference between an engineer and a person who wants to be the hands-on person on the floor,” Bouchie says.
Instead, the target is someone more like 19-year-old Madison Gish, who admits that “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after high school.”