Skills gap hard to fill in robot-driven manufacturing sector

Editor's Comments: Robots in manufacturing plants will change the name of work and in some cases eliminate jobs; they will also create a demand for skilled technicians who can maintain, fine-tune and fix the robots.


Manufacturing’s new face – clean operations in modern, well-lit, well-staffed industrial plant settings – is driving domestic employment growth, and robots are a key cog in that modern machinery.

From 2010 to 2016, according to a white paper for the Association for Advancing Automation, 136,748 robots were shipped to U.S. customers, the most ever in the domestic robotics industry.

Local educators say students exploring the link between mechanics and electronics, the so-called “mechatronics” evolution, are prepared to be the world’s next engineers and technicians. These kids are part of the smartphone, iPad generation and have no qualms about using technology for work and play.

Robots have increased labor’s productivity.

Expertise surrounding robots in the manufacturing and health care sectors is key in meeting those sector demands.

Experts say robots have increased labor’s productivity by 0.35 percent annually – the same rate as when the steam engine came on the scene of the Industrial Revolution.

“It creates a different kind of job,” said Stacy Wilson, chairman and professor of Western Kentucky University’s Engineering Department.

Jeff Phelps, a professor for engineering technology at Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College, agrees.

“Even some of the smaller plants have robots, Phelps said. “We offer courses on automated controls, robots and other machines. We also work with several area manufacturers who have identified needs in their workforce.”

SKYCTC has four FANUC robots at its Transpark campus, three more robots at the Bowling Green main campus and an additional robot or robot-related machines at its Franklin campus.

Phelps said college students can range in age from those just graduated from high school to older adults who may have spent 20 to 30 years working in the manufacturing sector.

“It takes more time for those (students) who don’t have the background,” he said. “Real-world work experience matters.

“SKYCTC students often work in a local plant and take classes. Those not yet out in the workforce find they can look over several different job offers,” he said. “Companies (also) try to bring up skill levels for folks already working for them.”

Students filling manufacturing jobs, but number isn’t enough

Between WKU and SKYCTC about 100 students graduate and enter the manufacturing sector workforce each semester. “We have a good number of students, but it is not enough to meet the needs,” Phelps said.

Wilson said WKU continues to forge partnerships with local companies who need graduates with higher-level technical skills. Read the whole Article

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