Source: By Stephen Burnett a KyForward contributor.
When Christina Partin was still a child, and her mechanic father would work on cars, tractors or lawnmowers, she would often want to go outside and watch the repairs. Yes, she was a daddy’s girl, she said with a laugh — but her father didn’t prefer her hanging around car parts and tools.
“He told me that I couldn’t do it, because it was a dad thing,” Partin said.
Her father, however, has since tuned up his views, she said later, because in 2010 when Partin graduated from Western Hills High School in Frankfort, she found herself pursuing a very similar career. Staff of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc., and Bluegrass Community and Technical College (BCTC) in Georgetown, had begun a new effort: the Advanced Manufacturing Technician Program. Partin began working as an intern for Toyota that summer, and in the fall her classes began. Those classes were specifically geared to teach multiple skills, equipping students not only for Toyota, but for most other manufacturing firms.
Having been the first person of her struggling family to graduate from high school, Partin now has more notable firsts: going to college, and being among the first students of the program.
“I’m already a complete different person,” she said. “I’ve done things I didn’t think I could do.”
“The program was really meant for us to develop skilled maintenance workers,” said Jim Mattingly, a recruiter with Toyota. “When we first came to Toyota, the people we hired were maintenance people in the beginning.” But limited knowledge of trades, especially spread out among several people, can only go so far in manufacturing, he said. Once firms could have hired one electrician, and one welder. Now firms prefer hiring one person who has skills in multiple fields, not only electricity and welding, but robotics, pneumatics, hydraulics and more, he said.
“There’s just a shortage of this kind of skilled laborer,” added Rick Hesterburg, with Toyota’s corporate communications.
Working together to help BCTC build students, who can then find jobs with manufacturers, was a prime opportunity for the college and Toyota, Mattingly continued. “With these students, we’re going to have a much better workforce in the future.”
This year, BCTC and Toyota supervisors are working with a third class of students, all recruits directly out of high schools. The program spans five semesters, across two years and including summers. When students finish, they will have at least 80 credit hours within their associate’s degree in manufacturing and industrial technology.
That will also benefit central Kentucky, said Mark Manuel, vice president of workforce and institutional development at BCTC. “We are in a hotbed of manufacturing here, even though most people think that manufacturing is dead,” he said. “It’s not. It’s growing.”
Manuel also helped assemble the internship program, in which students work 40 hours a week: 24 in the plant on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, and 16 hours in classes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and occasionally during evenings. Their work in the plant starts at $12 an hour, and depending on both their work proficiency and grades in school, they can get raises, up to $16 an hour, plus overtime payments, Mattingly said.
“It’s what people in academics call ‘work and learn,’” Manuel said. Such programs have existed for years, but have somewhat fallen out of favor, despite their beneficial approaches. “Our relationship with Toyota is fairly unique, because we are located on their facility; we work hand-in-hand with them,” he said. “They work together that closely. And that’s a good thing.”
Twenty-four students are in the program now, and Mattingly recently finished recruiting for the fall 2012 semester, from students at 19 high schools across the state. Their objectives are to find students who are interested in engineering in manufacturing, are skilled in math, and enjoy working with their hands. They have likely been in skilled trades programs already, he said.
Even before Partin began her first semester, she had spent several weeks in training at Toyota. That included safety training — something to which she had to grow accustomed. “I almost didn’t get into the program because I was scared because I was so little, and the machines were so big!” she said. At about 105 pounds and just over five feet tall, the factory floor was at first intimidating. “You have cars floating over your head all the time, pretty much. … In the shop that I’m in, we have forty-ton cranes, or forty-ton models being carried by cranes above you. It’s very, very easy — if you don’t know what you’re doing — it’s very easy to get hurt.”
But during those first weeks, and in the years afterward, Partin had no accidents. “They tell us all the time, they can replace us at work, but they can’t replace us at home,” she said.
Toyota’s Georgetown plant is the largest in North America, more than 25 years old and with 7.5 million square feet of floor space under one roof, equivalent to 156 football fields, Hesterburg said. Its workers can build 500,000 cars within a year. “When times are good, and our volume is ticking back up, it’s not unusual for us to make about two thousand cars here a day,” he added.
In that factory and in classes, Partin soon learned there were few boundaries between the two. “We actually learn, in the environment we’re working in,” she said. “I have friends in regular college, and they always told me how they wish they had gotten into an internship, because they hate sitting in a class with fifty people or more. … It’s really boring, and they’re not able to learn how they want to.” By contrast, the work pays for much of her tuition — along with a scholarship she obtained — and also allowed her finally to purchase her dream pickup truck.
Still, the job and classes, along with her second job at Advance Auto Parts, keeps her busy. “I don’t really get to get out and do a whole lot, because I’m focusing on my future,” Partin said. “The only thing I’m going now is to try to encourage someone else to go beyond what they know, or what they thought they could do. … I didn’t think I could do anything I’m doing now.”
This May, Partin will graduate. “My knowledge level is going to be up the roof,” she said. “I will have learned electricity, I will have learned motors. … I’ll have learned robots.” So far, she has two possibilities then: either go on to more college, perhaps for three more years to earn an engineering degree, or head into more work with Toyota, if that’s possible.
Mattingly said that Toyota cannot, and does not, guarantee future jobs with every student who participates in the program. But if students graduate with a good manufacturing skill set, they will be able to go out and find a job anywhere, he said. Though other colleges may teach similar manufacturing skills, few other programs can guarantee that, Mattingly added. “But what they don’t get is the Toyota training and teaching, working in the plant.”
That training has not only revolutionized Partin’s view of herself and her capabilities, but persuaded her father as well. When he saw how much she loved working with tools and car parts, on a larger scale, he changed his mind, she explained with a laugh. Since then, he’s attempted to teach her more of what he knows himself about repairing vehicles.
Yet in some sense, a high-school student needs a specific series of preexisting talents to find possibilities in this program, or manufacturing altogether, Partin said.
“Be sure that you know your math skills,” she suggested. “You just have to be sure that you’re headstrong, and you don’t give up easy. … The only person holding you back from doing anything that you want to, no matter what it is, is yourself.”
As for the program’s future, classes for interns may be able to move out of the Toyota building itself and into a new building. College classes hosted within a Toyota building, with Toyota badges on students, have been incorrectly perceived as loyalty to one company, Manuel explained. “Once we get the funding for that (building), we’ll be a real nucleus for advanced manufacturing in this region,” he added. “That’s really the key factor in attracting new businesses, and even expanding existing businesses.”
Top Photo: Christina Partin is a sophomore at Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Georgetown. This spring she will be one of the first graduates of a program letting her work and earn money, and manufacturing skills, with Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc., along with her ongoing work toward a degree in manufacturing and industrial technology.