Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 4, 2017

TCAT students see the future, get prepared

Bryan Rippy, 38, chuckles when he says he’s in the prime of his life. But sharpening his skills is no laughing matter, and he understands the importance of raising his value in the job market.

The line mechanic at Schwan Cosmetics in Murfreesboro is looking to earn a degree at Tennessee College of Applied Technology Murfreesboro/Smyrna to bolster his chances of getting a job at the Nissan powertrain assembly plant in Decherd.

Rippy and his classmates are among thousands of students at TCATs across Tennessee studying everything from robotics and pneumatics to hydraulics, programmable logical controllers and mechatronics, ensuring they’ll be able to take on almost any job at a manufacturing plant.

“We don’t get really, really deep into a lot of it, but it gives you a good basis, good fundamentals to start, and you can branch out in any direction with it and basically run with what you’ve built on in the time we’ve had here,” says Rippy, who hails from Skymont but moved to Murfreesboro to attend the TCAT.

Most employers want “real-world experience” and three to five years on a job, he adds, but they’re also willing to take into account the time spent training at the TCATs and “let you build on it from there.”

Another TCAT Murfreesboro student, Thomas Mendl of Unionville, started in mechatronics in 2015 and was accepted into Nissan’s work-study program, an apprenticeship in which he takes courses and works at the Smyrna plant. The new TCAT Smyrna has a dual role as a Nissan training facility at its sparkling home across Sam Ridley Parkway from the manufacturing plant.

“It’s a big hands-on experience,” Mendl says, explaining the robots at the school are supposed to be the same type used on Nissan’s production line.

TCAT is free to those who qualify through the state’s Tennessee Promise or Tennessee Reconnect scholarship programs.

Rippy, Mendl and another classmate, 24-year-old Evan Quatch of Antioch, have completed two years in the program and see it as a solid starting point.

“I think we understand that we still have a lot to learn. So, when we do get a job, we know we’ll have the basics, but we also know that there’s a lot you can learn,” Quatch adds.

But will what they’re studying now prepare them for an ever-changing job that could look much different in five to 10 years? They’ll take as it comes, they say, knowing they have a foundation of knowledge.

“Everything’s always advancing,” Mendl points out. “Technology’s always getting bigger and better, so it’s something that’s a constant learning experience. It’s a never-ending learning experience.”

Eye toward the future

A 2016 state study showed 1.4 million Tennessee jobs could be replaced by robots or machines.

With that eye toward that rising reality, the state Legislature enacted the Labor Education Alignment Program in 2013, providing $10 million in funding for 12 programs statewide enabling some 13,000 students to earn money while receiving on-the-job training.

Another $10 million in the fiscal 2017 budget expanded LEAP, which also helps state government make sure departments are aligned to ensure economic recruiting fits the state’s workforce.

State Sen. Mark Norris, a Collierville Republican who sponsored LEAP’s establishment, says the state has been busy recruiting businesses but didn’t have the workforce prepared to fill their jobs.

“This makes sure that the gaps are filled,” he says.

The state’s colleges of applied technology already can adapt to changes in manufacturing quickly because of the relationships they have with businesses across Tennessee.

Advisory councils are set up for the TCATs, and when an industry change comes along they can advise the college to shift its curriculum and even provide the equipment to train students for new methods.

It’s all part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55, the initiative to put postsecondary degrees and certificates in the hands of 55 percent of Tennessee adults by 2025.

TCATs and community colleges are the foundation of Haslam’s push, and they’re the turning point as well for workforce training.

“They’re so flexible that we’re able to meet the demands, so literally what we’re doing with community colleges and TCATs now is we’re out recruiting and businesses are saying we need training in these skills,” Haslam says.

“And our community colleges and TCATs are nimble enough to adjust to meet that.”

The Republican governor, who has about 16 months left in office, says he is more concerned about the ability of four-year universities to handle changes in the business world.

“It’s a lot harder for them to turn that battleship around,” he says. “TCATs and community colleges, I have a great degree of confidence that they can meet the demand.”

But Tennessee Promise and Reconnect, which was signed into law in May, are only as good as the job prospects for emerging students.

The state’s colleges of applied technology have an 82 percent completion rate and an 87 percent placement rate, says Carol Puryear, vice chancellor for economic development at the Tennessee Board of Regents and former associate vice president for the colleges of applied technology.

To that end, the Board of Regents works closely with the Department of Economic and Community Development and the Department of Labor, keeping an eye on the “hottest trends” for the next 10 years in careers and training opportunities, she explains.

TCAT advisory committees, made up of industry representatives, stay abreast of the latest skills and technologies, reviewing curriculum, equipment and teaching techniques to make sure the right courses and information are available for students, Puryear explains. The same is true for community colleges, which have their own workforce development programs.

“We’re still seeing a lot of interest in industrial maintenance or mechatronics,” she acknowledges. “It’s probably one of the most popular programs we have statewide. And it varies just a little bit by what area you’re in.”

Whether working with Nissan in Middle Tennessee, Volkswagen in Chattanooga or FedEx in Memphis, the TCATs’ focus lies with preparing students to be ready the first day on the job.

Lynn Kreider, director of the TCAT Murfreesboro/Smyrna, points out students will be able to use their current training for years, because no matter what type of technology arises, industry will continue to rely on computer programs, robots and electromechanical operations.

“Never in the history of the world has technology changed as quickly as it is right now. And, obviously, trying to stay up with that is a challenge and a cost,” Kreider says.

But through industrial partners and vendors, the state’s TCATs can “change and modify” with workforce requirements, he says.

One of the biggest changes in automotive production, in fact, deals with mechatronics, which combines industrial electrical maintenance into one set of skills.

Kreider points out Detroit auto manufacturers once used three people with separate areas of expertise, electrical maintenance, hydraulics and robotics, to keep their lines moving. In contrast, a mechatronics technician is capable of trouble-shooting all of those areas to make sure the plant’s assembly line is down for a shorter period of time.

“And, of course, with Nissan or any of the big companies around here doing just-in-time manufacturing, down time is calculated as financial loss,” Kreider adds. “So, the better the mechanic, the more training they have, the quicker they can find the problem and get the lines up and running again.”

TCATs don’t just turn out mechatronics technicians either. Their auto programs supply small mechanic shops and large dealerships, and the Murfreesboro facility has a 100 percent placement for students who specialize in tire work.

A program for the future, one set to be offered in a year, involves electromechanical work geared toward hospitals, according to Kreider, because those health-care facilities are using more equipment with robotic controls.

Thus, a technician certified in hospital mechatronics could be responsible for making sure medical procedures go off without a hitch.

“They need a technician that not only repairs and inspects those but is also there during the operation in case something would happen to go wrong,” Kreider explains.

Machines tool work is another up-and-coming training program, because any company using dyes and molds must have someone in a machine shop to repair its equipment.

The same is true for welding, a field in which some of his graduates are becoming entrepreneurs.

Kreider tells of one student who earned his welder certificate, bought some tanks and equipment and took off for North Carolina, where he’s making more money in the first few months than Kreider says he himself will ever make in a year.

Puryear has another anecdote. On a recent plane flight home from out West, she ran into a mother who says her son graduated from the TCAT Smyrna and is making $90,000 a year already working at Nissan.

More than likely, work will be available for those types of people, no matter how manufacturing changes. With programs such as the Tennessee Promise and Reconnect, no able-bodied person has an excuse for sitting idly.

Adds Kreider, “I think in five years we have a pretty good idea what direction we’re going. But 10 years from now there’s no telling the way technology’s moving.”

Knowing that, it takes some initiative and willingness to continue training. People who sit still will be left behind. And, as Bryan Rippy says, go for it while you’re in your “prime.”

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Knoxville Ledger, Hamilton County Herald and Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.