Emily Houston was a good student. Everyone told her she should go to college, so she did.
“I followed,” Houston says, “I didn’t really ask about any other options.”
When she got to the University of Kentucky, she didn’t know what she wanted to study. “I just felt like, I have to get a four-year degree. I have to get a Bachelor’s,” she says. She had no idea what she was going to do after finishing her degree, and it was hard to get guidance. Her advisor never seemed to have much time.
So, at the end of her sophomore year, uncertain where the pursuit of a Bachelor’s degree was taking her, Houston 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. She enrolled in something called the Advanced Manufacturing Technician (AMT) program.
The AMT program is a partnership between Toyota Motor Manufacturing and Bluegrass Community and Technical College. Students finish with a Bluegrass associate’s degree, but they never have to set foot on the college campus. All classes are held at Toyota’s manufacturing plant in Georgetown, Kentucky.
Shortage of skilled workers
At the Toyota plant in Georgetown, cars start as huge balls of steel. Twenty hours later, they’re driven off the 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 robots break down. Finding technicians who can fix them is a challenge.
“We can’t just go out and throw up some ads and hire some skilled people. They’re not out there,” says Toyota’s Dennis Dio Parker, who helped create the AMT program.
This isn’t just a problem for Toyota. In a 2011 survey, 74 percent of executives at U.S. manufacturing companies said a shortage of skilled production workers was having a significant impact on their ability to expand operations or improve productivity.
Toyota’s solution is the AMT program. And it’s not just designed to turn out graduates ready to work at Toyota, 15 manufacturers partner on the program. They’re all in it to get skilled workers.
“It’s tough to convince young people there are good careers in manufacturing,” says Terry McMichael, a supervisor at 3M, one of the companies that partners with Toyota on the AMT program. They picture factories as “deep, dark, dungeon-type environments,” he says. But modern factories are clean and bright, says McMichael, and the pay is better than you might think.
The starting wage for advanced manufacturing technicians in this part of Kentucky is about $80,000 a year with overtime. That’s more than the median starting salary for graduates of the highest-earning Bachelor’s degree programs in the U.S.
The Advanced Manufacturing Center
Students in the AMT program take most of their classes in a 12,000 square foot classroom built by Toyota to emulate a modern manufacturing facility. Signs hanging from the ceilings 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 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 prefers 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 had a scholarship to get a Bachelor’s degree in music. But he wasn’t sure he’d be able to get a job with a music degree.
“And if I took this program, there’s so many jobs,” he says. “And not only am I getting my schooling, I’m also getting paid for this. I’ll come out of this with no debt.”
Most students in the AMT program get paid internships at one of the participating manufacturers. Wages vary. Toyota pays $12 an hour to start, and students earn raises based on their work performance and their grades in school.
In addition to taking technical classes, students in the AMT program take general education classes like math, humanities, and public speaking.
Ballard says at first he didn’t understand why he needed to learn public speaking skills.
“But I really use them a lot when I’m over at the plant,” says Ballard, who interns at Toyota. “Rather than just ‘ah, that part moves and ah, that one extends a little bit.’ Now I can actually explain it.”
Students in the AMT program don’t get to choose what classes they take. All the classes are laid out for them by Toyota. “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.”
Carol Crawford, who is the AMT program coordinator at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, says she has no problem with the fact that Toyota chooses all the classes. She thinks that helps students see a link between academic and work skills. “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.”
The AMT program seeks students who graduate in the upper half of their high school class and score at least a 23 on the ACT math test. But there aren’t enough applicants who fit the bill.
“We are educationally challenged in the U.S.,” says Parker. “We’re not running with the best in Europe, we’re not running with the best in Asia. Our average is below their average.”
The AMT program in Kentucky will accept applicants who score as low as 19 on the ACT math test. But anything less than that, and a student would need remedial classes. There’s no time for remediation, says Parker.
“We’ve got every course selected in this program from day one to day end,” he says. “If they have to have remediation, they can’t start the program.”
Wherever they’re willing to send me
Emily Houston says she’s happy with her decision to quit the University of Kentucky and do the AMT program instead. She’s interning at 3M and expects to get a full-time job when she graduates this spring. At $80,000 a year, she’ll be making a lot more than most 22-year olds — 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 Houston’s goals. She used to think getting a Bachelor’s degree would be the best way to do that. But it turns out knowing how to fix robots might be just as good.
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