Workforce Development / Industrial Training / Skills Gap

Supporting manufacturers by supporting students: What filling the skills gap looks like at OCTC

What does a successful model of manufacturing training that meets the needs of students and industry alike really look like?

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

For all of the talk across the U.S. about the need to invest in manufacturing education—the comments offered up by local industry leaders at city council meetings, the exhortations made by public officials to their legislative colleagues—what does a successful model of manufacturing training that meets the needs of students and industry alike really look like?

Owensboro (KY) Community and Technical College aims to offer an example. OCTC, one of 16 colleges in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, offers degrees, programs and certificates in computerized manufacturing and machining, electrical technology, industrial maintenance technology, and welding technology, among other areas of study. But what helps set OCTC apart, leaders at the college say, is a focus both on outreach to local businesses to ensure that the skills being taught are the skills in highest demand in the region and on actively, continually engaging students to help ensure they can complete their course of study and advance on their career goals.

“For us to be an industry solution, we have to be a continuous improvement project,” says Jason Simon, innovation manager of AMTEC (the Advanced Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative), which works with OCTC and acts to facilitate college-to-college, college-to-industry and industry-to-industry collaboration. Within education settings, that means making sure that curricula, tools used in training facilities, and competency-based assessments remain relevant year to year. “We need to be able to turn on a dime” based on employers’ critical needs, Simon says.

It also means offering OCTC’s and AMTEC’s industrial partners certificate programs to help incumbent workers advance in their careers as well as skills assessments so that companies can better evaluate their workers for promotion opportunities.

“Those (companies) seeing success with addressing the skills gap are taking a multifaceted approach,” says Cindy Fiorella, vice president of workforce solutions at OCTC.

Equally important from a student perspective is not just selling young people in the larger Owensboro community—an area of around 140,000 people—on the compelling career opportunities available in manufacturing, but also providing personalized support throughout students’ studies.

More than a decade ago, OCTC implemented success coaching, notes Sheri Plain, OCTC director of workforce solutions and a 2019 Influential Women in Manufacturing honoree. A handful of dedicated “coaches” at the college work to ensure that students’ potential hurdles to getting to class or showing up at a job don’t become barriers to successfully completing whatever program they’re enrolled in.

“They do whatever it takes to help that student,” Plain notes—whether it’s guiding them one-on-one through the financial aid application process, helping them access ESL (English as a second language) assistance or following up with a student if an employer notes that he or she has been late to work a couple of days in a row. “You’ve got to have an advocate for that student,” Fiorella adds.

One of the most powerful sources of support for students can be instructors themselves—especially if the instructor has been in a student’s shoes. OCTC instructor Amanda Saam completed the industrial maintenance technology program at Somerset (KY) Community College in 2015 and went on to become a maintenance technician at Hitachi before being recruited to join the OCTC faculty in 2018.

A single parent, Saam says she’s driven to help women in situations similar to ones she found herself in. “They’re tired; they’ve got hungry kids; they’ll maybe make their rent” when they begin their course of study, she says. “(I say) this doesn’t have to be your forever. This is just your right now … Things can be better.”

Beyond teaching courses such as Introduction to Electrical Principles this fall, Saam herself will be back in school, pursuing her bachelor’s degree. Her message to students: “I know that it’s not easy going to school and working full-time, but I’m doing it, too.”