CLEARWATER — The best way to kill the enthusiasm of the next generation of manufacturing technicians is to stick them in a classroom.
That's the view of Brad Jenkins, associate dean of engineering technology for St. Petersburg College.
"Bring them into the lab on the very first day and give them a multi-meter," he says. "Now I've got their attention."
The Collaborative Center for Emerging Technologies at SPC's Clearwater campus focuses on cutting-edge manufacturing technology that sets students up for gainful employment, Jenkins said.
In a new building that opened in August, students can earn certificates and skills ranging from rapid prototyping with computer-controlled 3D printers and mills to high-efficiency manufacturing processes.
Manufacturing doesn't look like it did in the past, he said, and the education has to resemble what students will see in the industry. So, in what he calls the "newest and most versatile center in the state," you won't find simulators and training equipment.
At night, when the majority of courses are scheduled, the big, open work floor can host a class while other students work on projects at electronics benches, or inside the soft-walled clean room or in the rapid prototyping lab. Soon, the program will purchase a robotic manufacturing arm. The building, acquired by the college in 2010 and converted from a church day care center, gives instructors the chance to structure the environment like an actual manufacturing facility.
In September, SPC and a coalition of 12 Florida community colleges were awarded a $15 million federal grant for targeted manufacturing education. About $2.5 million of SPC's $6.1 million portion will go toward equipment upgrades, Jenkins said.
"It's all industry-based equipment," said Greg Lewis, who teaches computer-aided drafting. "We don't want them coming out (of the program) and going 'Well, I've never seen that before.' "
The center offers associate's degrees and a path to a bachelor's, but the first goal is to "get people who are unemployed a certification so they can get a job," Lewis said. Once students start earning an income with their new or updated skills, they will have the foundation to continue their education.
Students have come into the program and "not known a resistor from a piece of wire," Lewis said. Within 16 weeks, they can earn a certificate qualifying them to work as drafters, clean room technicians and electronics manufacturers.
Over 30,000 manufacturing employees work in Pinellas County and average a salary of over $54,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Pinellas County employs the second-most manufacturing workers in the state, primarily in the national security, medical technology and aerospace sectors.
"The skill set required for people coming out of the schools today is very advanced," said John Burns, director of the St. Petersburg Draper Lab facility, where they create "vanishingly small electronics." Manufacturers in the U.S. have a competitive advantage in high-tech fields like nanotechnology and micro-fabrication, he said, but it requires specific education.
An advisory board through the Florida Advanced Technological Education Center, a part of the National Science Foundation, includes educators, researchers and representatives from manufacturers to provide feedback to the program. Several of the industry partners also hire students for part-time "co-op" jobs averaging $15 to $17 per hour so students can work while earning a certificate.
Many of those co-op jobs have evolved into full-time offers, including the first two co-op students at Draper Lab, Jenkins said, but he didn't have overall statistics since the college does not track former students.
"Education, either formally or informally, has always been a part of Draper," said Scott Choquette, the St. Petersburg facility manufacturing chief, and a member of the advisory board. "We're always on the lookout for quality technician help," he added, and said they've taken on another co-op and "look forward to continuing the relationship" with SPC.
Jenkins, who was named the 2012 Educator of the Year by the High Impact Technology Exchange Conference, an organization that promotes education in advanced technology, believes that there's a real demand for the types of skills the center teaches. He bases that belief on the number of industry representatives he meets with each week.
"You see the economy picking up a little bit," he said, and most of the interest in hiring program graduates is coming from smaller shops that focus on limited-run or highly specialized products.
One thing he's learned: When employers come in looking for a skilled technician, they don't want to wait six months. "Now's the time for people to train and get educated," he said. "We have to be above that curve."