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Posted: April 01, 2013

Training in transition

Despite offshoring, manufacturing is up – and so are job prospects

Nora Caley

School is in
“Manufacturing really shrank in Colorado over a number of years and the number of programs in community colleges dried up,” says Andy Dorsey, president of Front Range Community College. “Manufacturing is coming back around and we are responding and reopening programs in conjunction with manufacturers to get the right mix of students back out.”

FRCC reintroduced its precision machining program, which it had shuttered six years ago. “What we’re hearing from the industry is that not only do folks need training in how to use machines, but they need measurement, metrics, basic mathematical skills and process control,” Dorsey says. He adds that FRCC’s welding program has doubled over the last six years, partly due to the oil and gas industry, and also as a result of partnerships with local manufacturers such as Fort Collins-based Wolf Robotics.

“We hear manufacturers bemoan the lack of skilled welders, but we have been fortunate,” says Doug Rhoda, president and CEO of Wolf Robotics. “We try to be proactive with relationships with Front Range Community College and CSU.  We are working closely with them on their curricula and hiring students and interns.”

Other schools are boosting their manufacturing-related offerings. Red Rocks Community College added two labs for programmable logic controller (PLC) classes. Rich Thatcher, department head for the electrical program for RRCC, says there is demand for skills related to using automated equipment. “The industry drives what I teach,” he says. “About 50 percent of our students are employer funded.”

RRCC also has seen an influx of students in electrical classes and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) classes. Those skills are needed to make a manufacturing facility run smoothly, says Larry Snyder, chair of the Carpentry, HVAC, Electrical, Fine Woodworking, Plumbing, and Water Quality departments. “The specialized training is something the employer will pay for,” he says. Additionally, there has been an increase in interest in soldering and OSHA training.

Matt Starr, chief technology officer of Spectra Logic in Boulder, says soldering is in demand at the data storage company. “Solder technicians are highly valued,” he says. “They can solder metal the thickness of human hair. That’s a very specialized skill set, versus broad skill sets we can use in other parts of the line that need a couple hours of training.”

The bigger areas are still welding and machining. Pueblo Community College built four mobile learning labs that bring non-credit technical training to Elbert, El Paso and Teller counties. Each of the 48-foot mobile labs is outfitted to teach welding, manufacturing, mechanical systems or electrical systems.

Amanda Corum, director of operations, says PCC also received a grant to build three additional mobile labs for welding, electrical systems and mechanical systems. “We are in the process of building these labs,” she says. “Once complete they will be moved to Southwest Colorado to support oil, gas and mining employers at our Durango and Mancos campuses.”

Some skills are so specialized that the training must be customized. Pam Shockley-Zalabak, chancellor at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, says UCCS recently partnered with a company that needed engineers to work on very esoteric software. “There are some very technical areas in engineering where there are shortages, but only three or four jobs available,” she says. “I cannot put in a degree program for four jobs, but if we have people with strong engineering backgrounds, the company can train people in that highly specialized area.”

UCCS also has programs to fill more common manufacturing needs such as robotics, process controls, systems engineering and quality control. One new program is the Bachelor of Innovation degree, which combines engineering and business management.

Hector Carrasco, dean of the College of Education, Engineering and Professional Studies (CEEPS) at Colorado State University Pueblo, says two engineering programs that have seen increased enrollment are the Bachelor of Science in Engineering with a Mechatronics specialization and the Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering. “Graduates are designing the manufacturing systems, and they are in there making sure things are operating well,” he says.

Dorsey, from Front Range Community College, echoes the other experts when he points out one more skill that all are trying to teach. “Students need to understand teamwork and soft skills such as showing up on time and how you fit into the workplace,” he says. “That’s true for all jobs. The soft skills are at least as important as the technical skills.”

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Nora Caley is a freelance writer specializing in business and food topics.

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