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VOL. 9 | NO. 17 | Saturday, April 23, 2016

Robots Are Taking Tennessee’s Jobs

Here’s how the state is helping train the next generation to adapt


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MTSU student Nathan Simpkins found the perfect major when the university started its mechatronics engineering program in 2013, a pursuit practically guaranteeing him a high-paying job in an increasingly automated manufacturing industry.

And once he graduates in May, Simpkins will be the prototype for the type of student manufacturers across Tennessee are trying to recruit, especially with old-fashioned and labor-intensive jobs falling by the wayside.

“I just fell in love with all of it. It just clicked with me and it makes sense,” Simpkins says. “It’s fun. I get to tinker with robots and stuff.”

When Simpkins, 22, graduated from Cheatham County High School and entered MTSU, he planned to focus on chemical engineering and transfer to an engineering school. Soon, though, he realized everything in chemistry was on a nanoscale – more theoretical – and he was a hands-on guy, having grown up on a farm in the Ashland City area.

“I like the mechanical side, and I was also pretty good at programming, so when mechatronics came out, it all kind of fell into place at the right time,” he says.

He changed his major to mechatronics, a mixture of mechanical and electrical engineering nearly three years ago when MTSU introduced the program at the request of the Manufacturers Leadership Council, a Rutherford County-based group set up when companies began crying out for highly-trained specialists, especially in the engineering field, who could immediately impact local plants.

Middle Tennessee State University engineering students Nathan Simpkins, left, Tyler Ethington and John Sivilaylack work together to complete their Skittles Bot Project.

(The Ledger/Michelle Morrow)

Simpkins is the first and only MTSU student to take and pass the NCEES Fundamentals of Engineering Exam-Other Disciplines test, giving the university a 100 percent passing rate on the exam.

A recent state report showed 1.4 million Tennessee jobs, many of them obsolete, labor positions, could be replaced by robots or machines in the next few years, affecting about half the state’s workforce.

Lynn Kreider, director of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology Murfreesboro, isn’t shocked by the report prepared by the Center for Economic Research in Tennessee.

Kreider, who will also oversee a TCAT in Smyrna being developed in conjunction with Nissan, says he’s been reading about similar studies for 20 years “and they just don’t come to fruition.”

On the other hand, Kreider says, Nissan and other manufacturers are already scooping up the college’s mechatronics graduates – the people who repair and program manufacturing robots – to the point he could graduate four times as many technicians and wouldn’t be able to catch up in 10 years.

With that in mind, Murfreesboro TCAT students Sean Turner and Dustin Howard are gearing up for job security in automation, programmable logic control or mechatronics, programs the 27 technical schools statewide are offering.

Both are nearing completion of industrial electrical maintenance certification at the college located just off Old Fort Parkway, where they say they’ve found a home to expand their knowledge.

“I enjoy the field. It’s something different every day versus going to work and doing the same, repetitive motion,” says Turner, 26, a Nashville resident who works for Topre America, a Nissan sub-contractor investing $50 million in a stamping plant in Smyrna.

“You can continue to learn up until the day you retire. That’s what I’m all about, trying to learn and have a better understanding.”

Howard, 20, a Siegel High School graduate also nearing his certificate, echoes those words. “I’ve worked at jobs where it’s the same thing every day, and that gets kind of repetitive. I like learning, I like trying to find something new and new challenges. And I’ve heard it’s got great pay, and so that also kind of drug me to it.”

The biggest problem with this job trend is finding enough candidates to fill those positions. Officials say they’re battling everything from begrudging parents to poor math skills as they try to recruit students to these fields.

Consequently, the desire to keep learning will put Turner and Howard at the front of the job market.

“You have to be able to shift,” explains Turner, who will become a certified mechatronics technician upon graduation and would still like to enroll at MTSU to study engineering.

“They’re gonna replace (labor jobs) with robots, and that’s where we come in. So I feel this is a safe field to be in for at least the next 20 to 30 years, a good field to retire from.”

State outlook

Tennessee Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd says the most recent report simply “reinforces what we thought might be coming.”

John Sivilaylack works on cleaning up wiring for the groups robot project at MTSU.

(The Ledger/Michelle Morrow)

Three years ago, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam introduced the Drive to 55, an initiative to have 55 percent of Tennessee’s adults hold a post-secondary degree or certificate by 2025. They’ve modified the effort since then, introducing the Tennessee Promise, a scholarship covering tuition costs for qualifying students at community colleges and colleges of applied technology.

The most recent report comes on the heels of a similar study showing if Tennessee can move to 55 percent from today’s 37.3 percent for state residents with a degree or postsecondary certification, the extra value per year would total $9.3 billion worth of additional annual income, Boyd says.

At the same time, the state and local communities combined would make $730 million extra in revenue and taxes.

Tennessee isn’t much different from surrounding states in this regard, according to Boyd, explaining the Drive to 55 should make people realize how important it is for the state to succeed in the workforce evolution.

Boyd acknowledges the state “definitely can be better” in producing more highly skilled students.

“The great thing about Tennessee is we’ve spent the time to figure out what the cost and benefit is and, two, we’ve got the strategies around it. We don’t have everything, but we are making progress and we recognize the threat,” Boyd adds.

“The most important thing to know is this is a real and present danger, a clear and present danger, and we need to be totally focused on making sure we solve it.”

In fall 2015, community colleges saw a 24.7 percent enrollment increase, largely as a result of Tennessee Promise. TCATs jumped 20 percent.

Gov. Haslam recently announced 82 percent of those students returned for this spring semester, including a 95 percent at the technical colleges.

“Students must receive postsecondary credentials if we’re going to achieve the goal of Drive to 55, and we will continue to work with our campus leaders to ensure these students have the highest possible chances of attaining their certificate or degree,” Haslam says.

While some say lottery funds used for the Tennessee Promise shouldn’t be diverted from Hope Scholarships, few, if any, members of the General Assembly will criticize the governor’s initiative because of its impact.

Drive to 55 has five strategies, one involving alignment, an effort to make sure people are being trained for skills companies need.

Tennessee’s Labor and Education Alignment Program, forged by Sen. Mark Norris of Collierville, encourages and rewards community leaders, educators and businesses for working together to figure out where job skills gaps exist and then to fill them.

The state has spent $10 million on the program, and Haslam put another $10 million in his fiscal 2016-17 budget to make more LEAP (Labor Education Alignment Program) grants.

In addition, the Department of Economic and Community Development is charged with working alongside the Tennessee Board of Regents, University of Tennessee system and Department of Education to “make sure we’re aligned,” Boyd says.

The state’s colleges of applied technology already can adapt to changes in manufacturing quickly because of the relationships they have with businesses across Tennessee.

Advisory councils are set up with the TCATs and when industry change comes along, they can advise the college to shift its curriculum and even provide the equipment to train students for new methods, according to Boyd.

Carl Mallette, professor and program coordinator at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, says his students are being scooped up by East Tennessee manufacturers.

(The Ledger/Chase Malone)

Such changes don’t move quite as fast in community colleges and four-year universities, but business and college officials are aware of the rapid changes in job technology, he notes.

Taking it to another level

Walter Boles, a professor in MTSU’s Engineering Technology Department, says there is a “huge need” to fill vacant positions, not because of a lack of job applicants but because those applying for jobs don’t have the right educational background for advanced manufacturing, high-technology jobs.

“Due to strong demand and interest from our industry supporters of our department at MTSU, they requested we start a mechatronics engineering program, which we did,” he points out.

Motlow State Community College, which has a mechatronics partnership with Warren County High School for dual enrollment, was already offering an associate’s degree in the field, and industry leaders wanted MTSU to be able to dovetail with that by setting up a four-year degree.

In its proposal to the Tennessee Board of Regents, MTSU said by year five it would have 50 fulltime students in the program. In year three, it already has 250 in the program, which is going through an accreditation process.

“So that’s a good gauge of how popular this program is,” Boles says.

Job placement is high, too, for graduating students and those entering graduate school. Salaries can range from $41,000 on the low end to $96,000 for an atypical student who already had five years of experience, according to Boles, who says graduates’ starting salaries are averaging in the mid-$60,000s.

Boles says the Bridgestone America people informed him about 72 percent of its engineers will be eligible for retirement in three to five years.

“So not only is there a severe shortage of people with engineering technology and engineering education, it’s only gonna get worse,” he says.

Industry steps in

Allen Sherwood, who works for Bertelkamp Automation and heads up the Manufacturers Leadership Council in Rutherford County, bridges a gap between companies such as Nissan, General Mills and Vintec and MTSU, Motlow State and the College of Applied Technology to make sure they stay up to date with industry standards.

The industry has been driving toward automation for years but is trending toward a more rapid change with an increase in robotics, which are changing as well, he explains.

“In order to compete with lower labor in other areas of the world you need to be able to have more sophisticated machinery, more automated machinery and then we want the students to be trained to that level,” Sherwood says.

“The low-hanging labor jobs that are mundane and hard to do, those are the ones that are going to be targeted, and the lowest-paying jobs are going to automation.”

Part of the council’s job is to take the message to the schools and let administrators, guidance counselors and teachers know “tremendous jobs” are available for someone with a two-year associate’s degree, four-year engineering degree or even a one-year certification from high school.

“Manufacturing’s not what people think of, and career guidance counselors aren’t necessarily aware of all the jobs out there,” he says.

The council worked with Oakland High in Rutherford County to help it obtain mechatronics training equipment. Nearby Siegel High School is moving in the same direction, as well, along Smyrna High School, according to Sherwood.

In addition to talking with graduating seniors to let them know about the expanding market in manufacturing, the council does career days for eighth-graders as they make decisions on what high school path they might choose.

The council isn’t just concentrating on manufacturing. Health care providers are looking for people with industrial engineering skills. As a result, students with science, technology and math skills are in demand as well, Sherwood says.

“The STEM-set skills are in all industries,” he says.

Optimistic outlook

Chattanooga State Community College is taking the glass-half-full approach to the evolution of automated jobs and considers this an opportunity.

“Yes, there may be manual jobs lost in the next 15 to 20 years, but it will create a whole new genre of skilled positions that will evolve out of that, everything from robotics to programming and program-logic controls and systems integration,” says Tim McGhee, in the college’s Engineering and Information Technologies Division.

Chattanooga State’s demand from advanced manufacturers is “off the chain,” he says, noting the division has 100 percent job placement.

As far as supply and demand, he admits the college could be doing better to meet the needs of local manufacturers. It works with Volkswagen and several of the primary suppliers and large manufacturers in the Chattanooga area.

In a strong economy, though, people are holding onto jobs, so Chattanooga State is relying on traditional students who recently graduated from high school to fill regional jobs.

Telling a young person they can find a good career in advanced manufacturing can be difficult. But persuading parents is tougher, people who’ve worked in traditional manufacturing and don’t see it as a future for their children, he says.

“So we’re kind of battling the culture of that aging workforce that was a legacy of old manufacturing, and I can say, here in Chattanooga and the needs of new and advanced manufacturing are still fighting that stigma, even though our graduates are coming out and making a whole lot more money than folks with baccalaureates,” McGhee adds.

Nancy Patterson, Chattanooga State vice president of college advancement and public relations, points out, however, non-traditional students, those who’ve been in the workplace for a while and want a second career or need to boost their skills, could be guaranteed a job if they enter one of Chattanooga State’s engineering technology or IT programs.

The governor’s Drive to 55 is important, she says, and Hamilton County is taking things even further with what’s called Chattanooga 2.0, which proposes for 75 percent of the county’s residents to hold a postsecondary certificate or degree by 2025.

“So we’re going after this very aggressively in our community, and those adults who have some postsecondary credits but didn’t finish are one of our targets to encourage them to come back to finish their education in one of these high-demand skills,” Patterson says.

Tailored curriculum

Carl Mallette, professor and program coordinator of the Electrical Engineering/Engineering Technology Office at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, is seeing his students get scooped up by east state manufacturers.

“So much more manufacturing’s coming in here, and we do not have trained people in the area to fill those jobs,” he says.

One problem with students who enter Pellissippi State is weak math skills, according to Mallette, and many of them stop coming to class and leave the college. The professor believes schools should prohibit calculators and put slide rules in students’ hands so they will learn the fundamentals of problem solving.

That shortfall aside, Pellissippi State collaborates with area companies such as Green Mountain Coffee, Alcoa and DENSO Manufacturing Tennessee in Maryville, which a year ago announced plans to add 500 jobs as part of a $400 million expansion project.

In fact, Pellissippi State designed a curriculum for DENSO, at the company’s request, combining its electrical engineering and industrial maintenance technology programs to come up with automated industrial systems to meet its needs, according to Mallette.

As a result, DENSO is hiring interns and grads from Pellissippi State, he says.

Robotics and automation have been part of the DENSO plant since it opened a quarter-century ago, but those areas are expanding. The same is true with education and development, company officials say.

In addition to internal training for associates at the Maryville facility, where it produces electrical components for cars, fuel management systems and meters, DENSO partners with the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Knoxville and Pellissippi State. The community college “tailored” its associate’s degree program to ensure it turned out the kind of employees DENSO needs, says Jeff Birkholz, section leader of DENSO’s Education and Development Department.

DENSO also started working recently with Blount County and Knox County school systems to introduce mechatronics into their STEM and Career Technical Education programs, Birkholz adds.

Modern manufacturing facilities are replacing old factories, and sending that message to parents is “sometimes challenging,” says Bob Booker, senior manager of DENSO’s Corporate Services. But the company is seeing “strong interest” in mechatronics training from students entering area colleges.

DENSO appreciates the state’s efforts on Drive to 55, which includes the Tennessee Promise of scholarship money for students to attend community colleges and technical schools.

While some of the older plants pulled out of the state, Japanese companies such as Nissan and DENSO invested in facilities, sparking a rebirth of sorts and creating a ripple effect across the state.

“I think that speaks real well, not only about the government cooperation at all levels within the state but just our workforce. We have really good people in Tennessee, and that means a lot to these companies that are moving in, to have this good workforce,” Booker says.

Likewise, Hankook Tire America Corp. is constructing a major manufacturing facility in Clarksville and recently announced it will move its North America headquarters to Nashville, investing $5 million and creating up to 200 jobs in Davidson County.

“Hankook Tire could choose anywhere to locate its North American headquarters, and it says volumes about Davidson County and Tennessee that they chose us,” says Boyd, the state’s Economic and Community Development commissioner.

The South Korean-owned company is not concerned about Tennessee’s ability to turn out enough skilled workers. In fact, Hankook took the workforce and availability of skilled employees into consideration when looking for the places to put its plant and headquarters, according to company spokesman Henry Kopacz.

“That’s not an issue at all. In fact, that’s one reason why Hankook is in Tennessee now,” Kopacz says.

Nissan partnership

One of the most important developments for College of Applied Technology in Tennessee is still under construction across from the Nissan’s plant, where a $35 million training center is set to open later this year.

Nissan and TCAT Murfreesboro will occupy the facility jointly to turn out graduates who will be able to work in Nissan’s Tennessee manufacturing operations, with one of its suppliers or with another company.

“Nissan’s success in Tennessee for more than 30 years is due in large part to our ability to recruit and retain a quality workforce of more than 12,000 employees working at the company’s operations in Smyrna, Franklin and Decherd,” Jose Munoz, executive vice president of Nissan Motor Ltd., and chairman of Nissan North America, said shortly after breaking ground on the facility last year.

“This new training center is a key component to the long-term sustainability and continued growth of our business in Tennessee and another testament to the state’s commitment to advancing business through education.”

Nissan officials say they remain committed to developing and maintaining a highly skilled workforce in Middle Tennessee.

In its relationship with Nissan, TCAT Murfreesboro is being supplied with more than a dozen robots for student training. A governor’s grant from two years ago and donated equipment from local companies enabled it to upgrade equipment.

The automation at companies such as Nissan, Vi-Jon personal care products and Amazon is “amazing,” TCAT Murfreesboro’s Kreider says.

“But like I say, we’re pretty much insulated because we’re the ones who create the guys who work on the stuff that’s automated,” Kreider says. “So as long as they keep building it, there’s gotta be someone to fix it.”

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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