Prepping the Workforce of the Future

Middle Tennessee’s Motlow State Community College launches robotics training center

On a windy day in late April, more than 200 people crowded into the new Automation and Robotics Training Center (ARTC) next to Motlow State Community College and the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in McMinnville, Tennessee, for a chance to check out the brand-new learning labs and hear dignitaries from across the state speak at the much-anticipated grand opening. Yellow, blue and pearl gray robots mounted at eye-level in the six high-ceilinged bays grasp the air with tweezer-like fingers as if assembling car parts.

There was standing room only during the Grand Opening event for the Automation and Robotics Training Center at Motlow State on April 26, 2019. Photo credit: Mark Gilliland

“Where we are today started with a need, followed by a vision. The vision today is complete, and the foundation is laid, but the mission has just begun,” ARTC director Larry Flatt told the group. “Over the last year, hundreds of hours have been spent working with the three primary suppliers of robots, and industries in our area, and with our local industry partners. … The results of those efforts are partnerships that others are trying to emulate entirely throughout the USA.”

Unlike colleges that align with a single robot manufacturer, the 12,500-square-foot ARTC provides hands-on instruction in material handling, robotic welding and work cell design for three of the world’s largest: FANUC, Yaskawa-Motoman and ABB, with a pair of work bays dedicated to each company. It also offers two distinct pathways for learning—a degree program for Motlow students, and certification training for business professionals, both of which prepare workers to design, operate and maintain industrial robots. In addition to the six labs, the center houses five classrooms, five offices for faculty and staff and a conference room that doubles as a community meeting space. The spacious foyer will also be used for trade shows, youth activities and other events.

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The new center grew out of a team effort by various local and statewide agencies, organizations and businesses that came together to create a robotics training facility that would ensure enough workers to serve the existing industry, spur livable-wage jobs for residents in a rural area and boost economic growth in the region.

Terri Bryson, Vice President of Workforce Development at Motlow State College. Photo credit: Mark Gilliland

“There’s a lot of interest and energy in making sure that we have the right workforce at the right place at the right time, and that it benefits the citizens of this state,” says Terri Bryson, Motlow’s vice president of external affairs and workforce innovation. “And in coming together and talking, a fact was revealed that there are more than 7,000 robots already in operation within 70 miles of McMinnville at places like Bridgestone and Nissan. And then in smaller shops there are industries that support them.”

Funding for the ARTC came from a $5.5 million grant awarded to Motlow as part of the Drive to 55 Alliance, a corporate-nonprofit-community effort that seeks to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate by 2025.

Still, the project wasn’t an easy sell, Warren County Executive Jimmy Haley told guests at the grand opening. “When we first proposed this program, we got a lot of pushback. A lot of people said, ‘Oh, a little rural community cannot sustain anything like this and pull this off.’ … We know, at the end of the day, that urban centers are going to outpace and outgrow us. But for rural communities, we need something as a resource that will be sustainable. This robotic center will teach us how to fish, and we’re going to be able to expand this pond.”

Motlow State President Dr. Michael Torrence welcomes visitors to the grand opening ceremony for the Robotics Center in McMinnville, Tennessee. Photo credit: Mark Gilliland

In early May, corporate trainers led the first short-term certification class of about 10 professionals employed at various companies from across the country, including those in California and Texas. (Class size is limited due to a 2-student-per-robot ratio.)

The feedback was extremely positive, Bryson says. “People are very, very affirming. They feel like this is a very well-organized, very well-structured learning environment. They like the layout of the facility. It’s easily accessible. The one thing you hear is there’s not a lot of traffic to get to it, and the cost of travel to this site is less. One industry leader said to us, ‘You know, I have $120,000 that I spend annually on training. Half of that goes to travel. Now a larger percentage of my training budget can go to actual training as opposed to the travel associated with it.’ That was something that we had hoped for, but to hear that right off the bat was wonderful news and affirmation.”

Automotive industry leaders from Nissan, Bridgestone and other nearby companies have also pledged their support, Bryson points out. “It’s a tight job market for finding people with the right skills right now. The industry tells us stories of hiring away from each other, and there’s a limited supply of people in these highly-skilled craft roles, what they call new collar jobs.”

This fall, Motlow instructors will begin teaching one-on-one, for-credit student courses leading to a traditional A.A.S. degree in Mechatronics with a concentration in Robotics. In addition, automation training will cover such topics as digital systems, sensors, electronics, hydraulics, pneumatics, programming and alarm management.

Visitors check out the Fanuc LR Mate 200 id laser. Photo credit: Mark Gilliland

“Motlow actually has a nationally recognized reputation for being an early adopter of mechatronics curricula, so one of Motlow’s niches is mechatronics instruction,” says Bryson, who credits the school’s dean of career readiness and programming, Fred Rascoe, for getting the idea off the ground. “Fred knew that to take mechatronics to the next level, it had to be infused with robotics.”

At the April grand opening, Flora Tydings, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, spoke about the potential impact on students, now and in the future. “Imagine what’s going to happen over the next several months, years, decades,” she said. “We’ve got to be ready. We’ve got to get our students trained for the jobs that exist today, but also the jobs that will be coming. There is not another facility like this anywhere in southern Tennessee, nor within a 500-mile driving distance.”

Jeno Kasa, the director of training at ABB in Detroit, reminded those gathered at the April Motlow event that the current workforce is aging out, leaving deep vacancies in many industries. “We’ve all seen the statistics talking about all the Baby Boomers that are going to be retiring soon, and millions and millions of jobs that are going to open up,” Kasa said. “It’s all true. That’s going to happen, and this facility is going to be paramount to training all of those workers to take the places of those leaving the job market.”

He went on to describe a phenomenon he frequently witnessed years ago as a robotics instructor. “The most interesting and most empowering thing that I saw was the first day when a student would come in the class. They’d sit in the front or they’d sit in the back row, depending on their nature, but they had this look that must be described as fear. They would look scared. They really had no idea what they were getting in for.

Robots welcome students to Motlow State’s high tech workforce center. Photo credit: Mark Gilliland.

“By the end of the week, when they had successfully gone through our programs, the lectures and the lab exercises, and I would hand them a certificate of completion, the change was immense. They were happy. They were confident, so it truly was empowering. And that’s what we’ll be able to do through this partnership. We’re going to transform [them] from the day-one, deer-in-the-headlights look to the graduation look, ready to take on the world and succeed.”

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