July 1, 2012

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Forging a Career

Is Manufacturing a First-choice Career Path?

Heather Stewart

July 1, 2012

True or false: Manufacturing is hard, back-breaking work in deplorable conditions—and it’s a dead-end career that doesn’t pay very well.

False! Industry leaders say manufacturing can be a great career path, but they are having a hard time convincing parents, school counselors and students to explore that option.

Vic Hockett, a faculty member at Dixie Applied Technology College, regularly visits high schools to talk about manufacturing.

“I tell them to completely erase what they’ve seen on TV or read in their old-school textbooks about the sweatshops and the smoke-filled factories and valleys that you see in some of the old pictures. The game has completely changed—it’s very high tech; it’s a very clean environment. Most of the factories in St. George, you can eat off the floor,” he says.

And in Utah, manufacturing is a growing industry. Over the past 12 months, the manufacturing sector added 5,000 new jobs for a growth rate of 4.4 percent—double the state’s overall growth rate of 2.1 percent. The industry encompasses a wide variety of sectors and companies, from the Malt-O-Meal plant in Tremonton to IM Flash Technologies in Lehi.

Career paths range from robotics to welding to assembling delicate electronics in futuristic clean rooms.

A Stepping Stone
The state’s network of Applied Technology Colleges wants to spill the beans on a little-known secret: high school students can take free concurrent enrollment classes through the ATCs and earn a certificate by the time they graduate.

An ATC certificate is a great ticket into a skilled profession, says Kelle Stephens, president of the Dixie Applied Technology College. Especially since local manufacturers are hard pressed to find skilled workers. But she says it can also be a stepping stone to further education.

ATC graduates can take that certificate to a public college, where they will receive transfer credit hours and can quickly earn an Associate’s degree.

Weber State University recently announced a partnership with the Davis Applied Technology College and the Ogden-Weber Applied Technology College, wherein ATC students who have completed a 900-hour certificate program will receive 30 semester hours of transfer credit at WSU. The credits are applied toward an Associate’s degree in general technology.

The state Board of Regents has directed all of Utah’s public higher education institutions to create similar degree programs in partnership with the ATCs.

But why stop there? Students can pursue an advanced degree, such as industrial engineering, all the way up the educational ladder.

But start at the ATC, says Stephens, “and get some skills. Work you’re way through your undergrad with some skills that will pay…Because if you do that, you’ll get your hands on a piece of equipment and you’ll learn how it works; you’ll learn the physics of it and you’ll learn all the technology that goes into it. And then if you want to go on and become an engineer, you’re going to be that much ahead, because you already know how stuff works.”

A Tough Sell
Many local manufacturers are eager to help their employees gain skills and advance along a career path.

Malt-O-Meal, for example, partners with the Bridgerland Applied Technology College to provide custom training for its maintenance technicians.

Job prospects at Malt-O-Meal are “excellent,” says Mark Suchan, plant manager. “With the right technical skills, they can go anywhere they want. Technicians can make a good living and not have a desk job.”

The company is focused on enhancing its employees’ skills at all levels. It provides ongoing in-house training, partners with the ATC for more advanced technical skills and offers tuition reimbursement for those who want to pursue higher education.

Nationally, the company has plant managers who started on the ground floor. Locally, a couple of people have continued their education—through the tuition reimbursement program—and moved up in the organization, one ending up at corporate headquarters.

But selling these types of jobs to parents is no easy task.

“What do parents want? They want their kids to be doctors and lawyers. And not every kid is going to be that,” says Stephens.

Across the state, the ATCs regularly reach out to high school students, attend career fairs and meet with high school counselors. Despite these efforts, both industry and the ATCs are having trouble overcoming pushback from those who influence students the most—parents and high school counselors.

“We put all these other vocations on a pedestal, and that impacts kids,”says Stephens.

But manufacturing doesn’t have to be a second-choice career option. Just as in any other profession, an individual with drive and ambition can take a manufacturing career all the way to the top.

Stephens notes that college graduation rates are disappointingly low. Dixie State College, for example, has a graduation rate of about 30 percent. “So there’s a bunch of kids who think they’re college bound, but when they get there, they think, ‘I don’t like this. I don’t want to do this. And they quit.’”

Instead of that expensive, dead-end route, start at the ATCs, she tells students, and explore the modern world of high-tech manufacturing.

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