Not your grandfather’s factory

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What do you think of when you imagine a shift change at a factory? Unless you work inside one, chances are you think of a whistle, punch-cards and time-clocks, and thousands of workers pouring out of the gates.

The assembly line of Henry Ford’s day still shapes public perception of manufacturing. But within the industry, vast changes in technology and global trade have transformed the way we design and produce things.

We live in the era of advanced manufacturing, where workers with a high level of technical skills are needed to run and maintain complex machines, robots and computer systems. Far from the negative stereotypes of manufacturing, many of the new jobs in the industry are clean and steady, and they offer good pay.

In fact, factory workers are some of the best paid workers in the country, said AJ Jorgenson of the Washington policy think-tank the Manufacturing Institute. “Today’s manufacturing employees earn higher wages and receive more generous benefits than other working Americans,” she said. For 2013, with average wages and benefits totaling $33.93 per hour, “there is almost a 9 percent premium for working in manufacturing,” Jorgenson added.

Demand for skilled labor is skyrocketing. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Advanced Manufacturing occupations grew by 99.4 percent between 2007 and 2012. And Economic Modeling Specialists International (EMSI) projects that the American manufacturing sector will add 2.5 million new jobs by 2017.

While the Labor Department reports that manufacturing jobs have declined 35 percent since 1980, the industry has seen a steady resurgence in recent years as companies move operations back to the U.S. – a trend called “reshoring,” or “insourcing.”

Virginia’s 5,000-plus manufacturers employ more than 200,000 individuals, according to the Virginia Manufacturers Association. At an Advanced Manufacturing Summit held last year, Tidewater Community College President Edna Baehre-Kolovani told representatives of 30 companies, “The college is committed to building a pipeline for young people to good paying manufacturing jobs in the region.”

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How is TCC making that commitment a reality?

The college offers an associate degree and a career studies certificate in mechatronics, which provide training in many of the skills needed in today’s advanced manufacturing facilities. The program covers motor controls, hydraulics, computer programming, pneumatics, programmable logic controllers and more. In 2014, the college dedicated a new Precision Machining Lab on the Chesapeake Campus, which gives students hands-on experience.

“Most manufacturing lines have hundreds of motors and sensors and a computer with programmable logic that tells the line to stop, start and do multiple functions,” explained Tom Stout, program head for mechatronics. “To be successful, employees have to understand the sequence and how it all comes together.”

Starting in fall 2015, TCC is partnering with Chesapeake Public Schools to offer a dual-enrollment pathway in mechatronics to high school students, starting in 9th grade.

“While still in high school, students can earn a career studies certificate in mechatronics, an internship and upon graduation from high school, earn an associate degree in one year,” said Chesapeake Campus Provost Lisa Rhine. “Students in the program will also qualify to sit for an electronics industry credential and are well prepared for entry-level work and further education.”

TCC’s Center for Workforce Solutions customizes training for manufacturing employers to meet their specific needs. Sumitomo Machinery America developed a partnership with IMS Gear and Busch Manufacturing to offer specialized training by TCC. “It’s a great success story,” said James Travers, vice president of business operations for Sumitomo.

Still, public perception remains a struggle. “Parents think manufacturing is dirty, dark and dangerous,” Stout said. “Today’s technician is highly trained, highly skilled and they work on expensive, precision, computer-controlled equipment. It’s nothing like it used to be.”

American manufacturing is leaner, and far more productive, than the factories of old. In fact, the Manufacturing Institute reports that in the two decades up to 2012, manufacturing output increased more than 83 percent.

American manufacturing is also smarter. This means that the jobs that “return” to the U.S. are different than those that left in the past several decades. They are more technical, and 80 percent require some training, according to a 2012 study by Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute.

“Today’s manufacturing is about advanced technologies, state-of-the-art facilities, and fast-paced work environments,” said Jorgenson. “It’s where the thought becomes the thing.”


In-demand skills

The Labor Department’s annual Occupational Outlook Handbook describes some of the most sought-after occupations.

Computer Numerical Control (CNC)Programmers
Computer Numerical Control (CNC) programmers develop programs that control machines on the factory floor. They automate production, making the manufacturing process faster, safer, more precise and more efficient.

Those who excel in this line of work are good with computers and solving problems. The vast majority of CNC programmers, according to a federal survey of the field, hold associate degrees or post-secondary certificates.

CNC programmers earned average wages in 2013 of $51,700. The Labor Department projects much faster than average job growth (22 percent or higher) in this field through 2022. Beginning in Summer 2015, TCC will offer a CNC career studies certificate.

Computer Aided Drafting and Design (CADD)
Drafters use computers to create technical drawings, help design products, and work with architects, machinists, and engineers to give precise dimensions and instructions for making things. Drafters are often called CADD operators, because the work they do is frequently programmed directly into computer systems that render their designs in three dimensions.

In 2013, drafters earned an average wage of $33,000. Employers generally prefer applicants who have completed an associate degree program.

These professionals can work in many fields, from aeronautical to civil drafting, working with architecture firms on construction projects, or with pipefitting operations at oil refineries. TCC offers an associate degree and certificate in CADD, and a specialization in architectural drafting and design technology.

Machinists and Tool & Die Makers
Machinists and tool-and-die makers operate machines by computer controls to produce precision parts and tools. Because of the rapid pace of technological advancements, machinists must be adaptable.

Precision machinists can make anything from simple bolts to tiny screws for orthopedic implants. They produce hydraulic parts, anti-lock brakes, pistons and many more mechanical parts for the auto, airline, and other industries.

The average pay for machinists is $39,800. Employment is projected to grow 9 percent over the next decade. According to the Labor Department, while this job growth rate is about average for all occupations, opportunities for young workers entering the field will be “excellent” given the large numbers of retiring Baby Boomers.

TCC’s programs include an associate degree and career studies certificate in mechatronics.

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