A perfect partnership
Kentucky’s AMT program is revolutionizing how manufacturing employees are trained
By Trisha Ostrowski
In 2011, the Manufacturing Institute estimated that as many as 600,000 skilled manufacturing jobs nationally were going unfilled because there weren’t enough qualified workers. Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky took steps to fill that gap by forming a model technical education program that is a beautiful partnership between industry, education and local economic development.
The Kentucky Federation of Advanced Manufacturing Education (KY FAME) was created because Toyota saw it needed to start replacing large numbers of retirees from its Georgetown plant. So, together with Bluegrass Community and Technical College, they created a pipeline of skilled young people to fill the void.
The program has been so successful that it has grown into what is now called the Advanced Manufacturing Technician program (AMT), including several additional manufacturers in the region. Students take most of their classes in a 12,000-square-foot classroom facility built by Toyota, called the Advanced Manufacturing Center. It emulates a modern manufacturing facility, and gives students practical opportunities to learn the skills they need to be successful.
More than a typical “technical college”
Students who enter the AMT program are sponsored by a member company. They attend classes two full days a week, and work for pay the other three days at their sponsoring company. School days are full eight-hour shifts, emulating the work day, and students complete the program in five semesters.
When they graduate, students have earned an associate’s degree in Applied Science, 70 to 80 college credit hours and two year’s work experience. In addition to classes that build technical skills, AMT students take general education classes like math, humanities and public speaking. Fees for the program are paid while students are employed, so they end up owing no college debt when they leave.
Bluegrass Community and Technical College even operates a campus now on the Toyota grounds, so students are able to develop skill with the equipment they’ll be using on their new jobs.
Another member company is 3M, which operates a plant in Cynthiana. “If you look at building cars and making Post-it Notes, there’s not a lot of difference,” says Terry McMichael, a supervisor at the plant. The reality is both manufacturing processes use robots, which means the companies need people who can operate them.
Toyota recognizes that one key benefit for students is that the program allows them to quickly connect classroom learning with real-world application. And students have ready access to help if they begin to struggle in the classroom.
Toyota typically doesn’t hire many community college or technical school graduates, primarily because they have found these schools focus too narrowly on technical skills instead of critical thinking, problem solving and communication. Logically, they took steps to change the marketplace by creating a partnership that combines learning those skills with developing the technical know-how to succeed as employees. It’s a long-term investment that just makes sense.
But it’s not that easy
The AMT program is not for everyone. Because the sponsoring companies are looking for young people who can develop into outstanding employees long-term, they want their investment to pay off. Minimum requirements to enter the program are finishing in the upper half of the student’s graduating class and at least a 19 on the ACT math test.
Carol Crawford of Bluegrass Community and Technical College says it’s important to maintain that selective approach to accepting students into the AMT program. “The world has changed,” Crawford said. “They have to be able to perform academically. They can’t just come in and be good with their hands.”
Toyota started the program believing that many graduates would choose to go on to pursue a four-year degree. They have established a bachelor’s in engineering program with the University of Kentucky. But, in reality, since the first AMT class graduated in 2012, only two have enrolled in the UK program. Most graduates (95 percent according to a recent Toyota report) continue on with the work they’ve trained to do instead, because they have developed practical skills and are making good money.
The AMT program has been viewed as such a success that Toyota has now developed similar programs at four other facilities. What began as a way for Toyota to provide training for its future employees has become a training ground for technical and classroom education as a partnership.
“The idea is to develop a global workforce,” said Crawford. “That means we are building a more rounded worker.” Ultimately, that means a win-win for manufacturers like Toyota and for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.