Developing the Bluegrass Region’s Manufacturing Workforce

Manufacturing Month would not be complete without taking a look at paths to becoming a member of the Bluegrass Region’s manufacturing workforce.

According to the Census Bureau, the manufacturing industry employers over 33,400 Kentuckians in the Bluegrass, or 11.2% of the workforce, making it the 4th largest employing industry in the Region. The median annual wage is just over $46,500 per year, while manufacturing workers in Fayette County earn almost $49,000 per year. In comparison, the national median earnings for manufacturers is just over $42,000.


So far in 2015, six manufacturing companies have expanded their operations and two have opened new facilities, investing $108.9 billion and creating 529 additional jobs, according to the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development. In 2014, there were 30 expansions and new facility openings, representing $97.7 billion in capital investment and creating 543 new jobs. These companies contribute to Kentucky’s exports, which totaled $27.8 billion in 2014. Top exports were aerospace parts and products ($7.8 billion), motor vehicle parts, bodies, and trailers ($5.9 billion), synthetic rubber and resin ($1.4 billion), and pharmaceuticals ($1.3 billion). Clearly, manufacturing is an essential segment of the state’s economy.

Kentucky and the Bluegrass Region have many programs in place to continue building a workforce that is capable of fueling the manufacturing industry.

Kentucky Project Lead the Way begins introducing Kentuckians to STEM subjects at a young age. Through five programs at various grade levels, Project Lead the Way’s curriculum uses activities, projects, and problem solving with students and includes a professional development model for teachers. Dozens of schools throughout Kentucky participate in PLTW programs, including more than 20 in the Bluegrass Region, and eight Kentucky colleges, universities, and technical colleges offer college credit for PLTW students, including the University of Kentucky, Morehead State University, and Western Kentucky University.

After K-12, a well-known path to the manufacturing industry is through KY FAME (Kentucky Federation of Advanced Manufacturing Education) and the Advanced Manufacturing Technician (AMT) Program.

Facing a lack of local workers with the critical thinking and communication skills necessary in an advanced manufacturing environment, Toyota created the Advanced Manufacturing Technician (AMT) Program to craft a homegrown workforce with soft skills as well as technical knowledge. Today, the program is operated by KY FAME, a partnership between regional manufacturers to build a sustainable advanced manufacturing workforce. Through an apprenticeship-based curriculum, the AMT program combines learning with hands-on experience in an immersive environment. Students learn the knowledge and skills required to be advanced manufacturing technicians, such as electricity, robotics, fluid power, mechanics, fabrication, and industrial troubleshooting, and apply those concepts while working part-time for actual manufacturers in the region, such as Toyota and Link Belt.

The AMT Program accepts only high school students who have scored at least a 19 on ACT math, although the preference is for a score of at least 23. Through a competitive selection process, KY FAME companies choose students to sponsor. Classes are two days per week and students work for their sponsor three days per week, and many continue working for their sponsor after graduation. Some of the participating manufacturers are major employers in the Bluegrass Region, including Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, Link Belt Construction Equipment Co., TOPY America Inc., and Hitachi.

Students operate on the same kind of schedule they would encounter in the real world: eight hours a day, five days a week, and without summer breaks. This scheduling discipline helps bolster students’ professionalism and soft skills, whereas traditional college schedules are less demanding, less regular, and often treated as optional. Students leave the program with above average soft skills and are able to prove to future employers that they are experienced and ready to be first-class team members.

The AMT Program “classroom” is the Advanced Manufacturing Center, a 12,000 square foot facility located in Toyota’s North American Production Support Center in Georgetown. The Center was designed to look, feel, and operate like an authentic manufacturing environment to enhance students’ learning and skill development and even house a small industrial grade factory called the Manufacturing Simulator.

Although the AMT Program and the Advanced Manufacturing Center were created by Toyota, the knowledge and skills learned are not specific to Toyota. Graduates are prepared for a variety of jobs in any other production facility that uses advanced manufacturing and robotics.

The AMT Program offers a value beyond a high-quality manufacturing education: soft skills. A recent report by the Kentucky Chamber found that 27% of businesses surveyed had trouble finding workers with good soft skills, such as attendance, communication, and teamwork. The AMT Program addresses this deficiency by teaching general education classes, such as humanities and public speaking, and focus on six essential soft skills: attendance, initiative, diligence, interpersonal relations, teamwork, and verbal and written communication. These soft skills help graduates excel in a collaborative manufacturing environment and gives them a substantial advantage in the job market. Furthermore, Kentucky benefits by having a highly skilled, well-rounded advanced manufacturing workforce that helps the Commonwealth attract and retain manufacturing companies.

At the end of the AMT program, students graduate with an Associate in Applied Science degree, two years of real experience with a major manufacturing company, the opportunity to continue working for their sponsoring company full-time, and generally zero student loan debt because of their sponsorship. Some chose employment with a company other than their sponsor, while others may choose further education at a 4-year college.

At the University of Kentucky, undergraduate programs related to the manufacturing industry are primarily found within the College of Engineering, particularly Biosystems Engineering, Electrical Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering. Undergraduate engineering students also have the option to enroll in dual-degree programs and work towards a B.S. in Electrical Engineering or Mechanical Engineering and a M.S. in Manufacturing Systems Engineering. In addition to the Manufacturing Systems Engineering Master’s Program, the University of Kentucky also offers a Graduate Certification in Lean Systems and is home to the Institute for Sustainable Manufacturing (ISM). The ISM is a multidisciplinary organization that brings together faculty members, graduate students, university partners, industry partners, and research organizations such as the Kentucky Science and Engineering Foundation (KSEF), the National Science Federation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the US Air Force Research Laboratory, the US Army, and the US Department of Education.

Programs like KY FAME and educational assets like the University of Kentucky build Lexington’s talented workforce and help attract and retain manufacturers, keeping jobs here in our region.

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