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Manufacturers, Higher Education Partner to Train High-Tech Engineers

Partnerships between local manufacturing firms and higher education institutions are deepening the pool of workers skilled in mechanical, electrical and computer engineering (mechatronics).

By Laura Hill on May 29, 2014

A nationwide shortage of skilled workers is making it difficult for many manufacturers to fill jobs. In Rutherford County, industry leaders and higher education institutions are working together to bridge this gap by providing workers with technical skills they need to be successful.

To get more people properly trained for these jobs faster, local manufacturers are collaborating with Middle Tennessee State University and area colleges on degree programs and career training to prepare students for high-tech work. Bridgestone Americas, Quality Industries Inc., O-Flex Automotive, Southeastern Technology, General Mills, Yates Services and Nissan North America, Inc. are just a few of the firms providing funding, offering lab space and even helping design new curriculum aligned with industry needs.

“Partnerships between education and industry are the future for higher learning,” says Bud Fischer, dean of MTSU’s College of Basic and Applied Sciences. “That’s how we will continue to move the country forward.”

At the heart of these partnerships is an increased emphasis on mechatronics, a process that combines mechanical, electrical and computer engineering to create an integrated systems approach used in product manufacturing and the design of automated systems.

“With this blend, you end up with a multitalented individual who can address all parts of an automated system,” says Dr. Walter Boles, engineering and technology chair at MTSU, which recently added a bachelor of science degree in mechatronics engineering.

Motlow College offers a mechatronics certificate and associate’s degrees, with courses held on-site at the Bridgestone North American Manufacturing Education Center in La Vergne.

“Our collaboration with Bridgestone is critical and vital to Middle Tennessee,” says Fred Rascoe, Motlow College’s director of career readiness and an assistant professor of mechatronics. “They understand the need for a strong mechatronics program that focuses on all facets of the industry.”

Advanced Degrees for Advanced Careers

Holding classes with one of Rutherford County’s largest employers allows Motlow to offer a hands-on program.

“We teach the whole system,” Rascoe says. “The certificate program gives students a solid understanding of maintenance and how systems operate. The associate’s degree covers how systems are designed.”

Students pursuing mechatronics range from adults interested in advancing their careers to high school students just starting theirs. Oakland High School students, for example, can participate in a dual enrollment program that allows them to earn college credit and a Siemens Level 1 Mechatronic Systems Certification before they receive their secondary diploma.

“The students selected for the program are the best of the best,” says General Mills Plant Manager Pat Murphy. “They can take the Level 1 certification and secure an immediate job. Or if they choose to, they can get a higher-level job with an associate degree and a Level 2 Siemens certification, or go even further with a degree from MTSU.”

Classes for MTSU’s mechatronics engineering program began in January 2014 after being proposed to the Tennessee Board of Regents just six months earlier. The fast approval process was “entirely because of industry demand for a program to complement the associate’s degree at Motlow,” Boles says.

The bachelor’s degree places heavier emphasis on math and integrated systems design to prepare students for the Siemens Level 3 Certification.

Also under the wing of MTSU’s College of Basic and Applied Sciences is the aerospace department, which recently embarked upon a partnership with PSA Airways to increase employment opportunities for graduates by providing them with the opportunity to enter the airline’s pilot training program.

“Students with a 3.0 GPA are guaranteed to have an interview with PSA upon graduation,” says Aerospace Department Chair Ron Ferrara, noting PSA’s increased demand for pilots.

MTSU also offers a groundbreaking Concrete Industry Management Program that covers increasingly high-tech design elements of the field and offers solid career prospects. “Many of our 40 recent graduates had three or four job offers,” Fischer says.

Continued demand for employees with high-tech skills across all industry sectors is projected to grow into the foreseeable future. Programs like these help ensure a technically trained workforce will be available to fill this demand now and as Rutherford County continues to grow.

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