Lehigh Valley Manufacturers Use LCCC’s Mobile Lab to Help Train Their Workforce
published Monday, February 19, 2018
By Leanne Recla
Skilled manufacturing employees are in high demand in the Lehigh Valley, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy for regional businesses to send their workers for training.
So Lehigh Carbon Community College a way to bring the training to the students.
“We saw a need for manufacturers who would struggle to send their employees to our on-campus lab, and we wanted them to have access to the same kind of training,” says Tom Bux, director of Workforce Development at LCCC.
In July 2017, LCCC finished retrofitting a 28-foot trailer that includes all the hands-on training equipment a student needs to take the college’s full Industrial Automation course. Within a few weeks, the “mobile manufacturing lab” was parked outside ATAS International Inc. in Allentown, and six employees from five nearby companies started the 220-hour course.
“It was a really good opportunity because I just started at FlexLink in June, so this class was a perfect opportunity for me to get up to date really fast,” says Matt Romanyshyn, referring to the manufacturer of automated conveyor systems located next door to ATAS. “I increased my knowledge, which I could then take back to my coworkers, which improves our overall quality of work.”
Manufacturing in the Lehigh Valley
The biggest industry cluster currently in the Lehigh Valley is manufacturing, according to Bux.
“It’s not the type of manufacturing you normally think of, though. Most of what we have here is highly technical manufacturing, like Nestle, Coca-Cola, Ocean Spray, all the medical device companies. That requires a combination of mechanical, electrical and automation disciplines,” Bux says. “So it’s unique in that most of our manufacturing will require skills beyond high school. You don’t need a four-year degree, but you need something.”
Working closely with the existing manufacturers in the Lehigh Valley, Bux and his team determined that the most-needed skills are related to industrial automation. So while LCCC was outfitting the mobile lab, the team focused on reproducing the same training equipment that is available in the on-campus lab.
As the college was putting the finishing touches on the mobile lab, it was also working with the Manufacturers Resource Center in Allentown to develop a training partnership with area businesses. The result was the mobile lab being parked at ATAS International for several months so that local companies could send employees for the Industrial Automation course.
“I don’t think I would have been able to commit to taking classes after work hours, but having the mobile unit right next to my workplace was very convenient,” Romanyshyn says.
A closer look at Industrial Automation training
During the course, students worked through several modules, including AC/DC electrical systems, which involve electrical theory and learning to take accurate electrical measurements; control logic and motor control; working at a mechanical bench, where the students learned how to mount motors; and programmable logic controllers, which can be programmed to control various manufacturing processes like assembly lines.
“The mobile lab brings the college to the student,” says LCCC instructor Don Worman. “What the students really seemed to value, though, was working in pairs and having continuous access to the instructor.”
Classes were limited to two students at a time, not only due to space constraints inside the trailer, but to ensure that the students got as much hands-on training as possible. LCCC then communicated with the employers the list of skills that the students were able to do at different points in the course, and encouraged the companies to establish mentors and on-the-job training to reinforce everything that they were learning.
The six students completed the course in December 2017, earning the college’s Industrial Automation certificate. That kind of training can give the students a leg up in their careers.
“They can be considered what’s called a ‘smart operator.’ Someone who starts new in a manufacturing environment would be a ‘machine operator.’ If there’s anything wrong, they usually call a maintenance person. But a smart operator has enough understanding of the components to be able to do that first level of troubleshooting and be able to do a minor correction if it’s something that’s easily fixed,” Bux says. “They can also begin to move into maintenance, because understanding all the components is what’s needed to be in maintenance. Or, they can choose to be industrial automation technicians - they’re the ones who actually do the programming, design and implementation of automated systems.”
The future of the mobile manufacturing lab
There is a growing need for this type of training - over the next 10 years, it is expected that up to half of the manufacturing workforce will retire.
“They’re the knowledge experts. They’re the leaders, managers, supervisors. Companies are beginning to build pipelines of talent and give incumbent workers training to be able to move up the ladder in the company.”
““We understand that many Lehigh Valley manufacturers are experiencing the same challenges in accessing convenient training opportunities and talented personnel,” says Dick Bus, president of ATAS International. “In addition to the skills learned in this program, training such as this is helpful for students to consider respected careers within manufacturing.”
In order to expose more people to careers in manufacturing, LCCC is also driving its mobile lab to local events like career fairs.
“Not everybody understands what’s needed to get a job in manufacturing. Unfortunately, if someone tries to get a job and is asked about skills they don’t have, they might give up. But if they see what the training actually is, it helps people understand that they can do this, and hopefully encourage more people to get into manufacturing,” Bux says.
LCCC was recently recognized for its mobile manufacturing lab when it was chosen as one of 10 finalists in the category of Workforce Development at the 2018 National Bellwether Futures Assembly
. During the conference, Bux and Worman both presented on the college's work with developing talent pipelines in the manufacturing sector of the Lehigh Valley.
Bux plans to continue working with the Manufacturers Resource Center and local manufacturers to create similar cohort classes, particularly at companies in Schuylkill and Carbon counties, which are located even farther from the college’s main campus in Schnecksville.
“Every year, we see a net growth of about 1.2 million people entering the workforce in the U.S. In 10 years, that’s going to drop down to about 400,000,” Bux says. “If we don’t meet this need for a skilled, trained workforce, many of these companies won’t be able to operate.”