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Colleges and Manufacturers Work Together to Solve the Skills Crunch

The collaboration between Permac Industries and Dunwoody College of Technology is an example of a new brand of college-industry partnerships that might eventually help the U.S. grow as a manufacturing power while creating jobs.
August 22, 2012
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Permac Industries, a maker of precision parts for medical technology products and other fields, is perpetually short of workers to operate its lathes. So acute is the shortage for the Minneapolis-area firm that some production lines shut down on nights and weekends because there's no one to work them.

A couple of years ago, the company's president, Darlene Miller, had an idea. She likes to hire graduates of nearby Dunwoody College of Technology if she can get them. But competition for graduates of its two-year associates' degree is intense, and the coursework includes skills that Permac doesn't need.

She approached Dunwoody with a proposal for a partnership that would get Permac its technicians while offering people without much post-high school education a quick on-ramp to a decent wage. This is one of a new brand of college-industry partnerships that might eventually help the U.S. grow as a manufacturing power while creating jobs.

Similar pilot programs are starting in states from Michigan to North Carolina to Oregon, says Tom Hilliard, who creates workforce policy for the think tank Center for an Urban Future.

"What we really need is ... to support a 21st century workforce and secondary system where we are providing financial aid for those who work full time and study part time, where community colleges are expected to work with employers who identify competencies they want graduates to have, and a system in which you really erase the artificial boundaries between shop floor training and college training," Hilliard says.

That is more or less what the partnership between Permac and Dunwoody is setting out to do. Miller sits on President Barack Obama's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, which provided the resources to develop a curriculum quickly.

Earlier this year, Dunwoody started a 24-week course in computer numerical control, or CNC, operation, which is the crucial skill for those who program and operate automated cutting tools. The course is proving to be popular, filling up for its first two offerings and for the next session starting in January 2013.

Eighteen weeks of hands-on and classroom instruction at Dunwoody are followed by a full-time, six-week internship at a local factory that pays $15 to $17 an hour, with the understanding that the company may hire the intern. The students have a wide array of backgrounds, from a 21-year-old woman to a former lawyer in his 50s, says E.J. Daigle, director of robotics and manufacturing at Dunwoody.

The school graduated 17 of the 20 enrollees in its first course, and 15 of those are now employed full time as apprentices, operators or programmers, Daigle says. The CNC certificate is integrated into other coursework so students could return to the school and finish an associates' degree. Many students get financial aid for the $11,000 tuition.

Miller is hoping to eventually hire as many as six CNC operators from the Dunwoody course. Pay would start at up to $19 an hour and, as the employees gain more experience, could rise to as high as $30. None of Dunwoody's graduates, however, have been hired at Permac, Daigle says.

Another local technical school, South Central College, has adopted Dunwoody's curriculum, and it is freely available to other schools; colleges in Oregon and Utah are next in line, Daigle says.

'We've told all the kids go to college to get a degree, and we've completely blown off the manufacturing training," Miller says. "High-tech manufacturing is here to stay."

David Ferris is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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