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Industry Partnerships Build Industrial Automation Careers through Student Apprenticeships Feature Story
The use of automated robots in manufacturing production is on the rise, and so is demand for skilled workers with the expertise to operate and maintain these high-tech machines. Not surprisingly, Orange County’s community colleges are on the front lines of addressing this need. This fall, not one but six regional community colleges started offering industrial automation apprenticeship programs to meet regional workforce demand and help students find great paying careers.
“Employers in advanced manufacturing and wherever automation is being used cannot find a qualified workforce,” says Orange County Regional Consortium Talent Development and Retention Director, Dr. Jon Caffery. “Because of this, they’re poaching each other’s employees on a regular basis.”
To meet this need, the Mechatronics Apprenticeship Program Partners (MAP2) was established by Festo Didactic in partnership with DIAG USA and the Orange County Regional Consortium to address the workforce skills gap in Advanced Manufacturing. Today, Cypress, Fullerton, Irvine Valley, Orange Coast, Saddleback and Santiago Canyon Colleges all have new industrial automation apprenticeship programs that focus on a different aspect of industrial automation. The field, also known as mechatronics, is an interdisciplinary branch of engineering that focuses on mechanical and electrical systems.
Built on the German apprenticeship model of dual education and adapted to US industry needs, the program combines classroom instruction with hands-on and on-the-job training at a company. The program’s mission is to help employers develop highly qualified and skilled employees who are missing in today’s workforce.
Each week, students enrolled in these programs spend two days in the classroom and three days on the job for a total of 2,000 hours of on-the-job training. During this time, students work as apprentices starting at $20 an hour and eventually earn an industry-approved certificate from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS). The best part? Tuition and training are paid by the company, ensuring that students remain free of student debt while earning their associate degrees and industry certifications.
Students wishing to learn more about these apprenticeship programs should visit the MAP2 website at https://www.map2apprentice.org/ .
While many people assume the use of robots is bad for workers, Caffery is quick to point out that the need for human beings to maintain these machines will continue to grow, too.
“Robots are great for repetitive-type actions. A robotic arm can do repetitive things faster than a person,” Caffery said. “But you need a person to program that robotic arm and maintain that robotic arm.”
Israel Dominguez, director of economic and workforce development at Saddleback College, noted that the only university in southern California to offer a degree in mechatronics is California State University Los Angeles, which graduated 48 students in its program in 2020. At the same time, the area had 1,259 new job openings and over 19,000 jobs in the field – 23% above the national average.
In addition to being in demand, the jobs also pay well, Dominguez said. The median salary range is $54.83 an hour, or $101,000 annually. More importantly, employees will earn even more as they gain experience.
“From day one, they are employed,” he said. “They’re paid a graduated salary and earn more as they learn more.”
To ensure students find work, MAP2 has developed extra employment partnerships throughout Orange County with companies such as B. Braun, a medical and pharmaceutical device company; Oakley, an eyewear company; Applied Medical, which manufactures medical devices; and Archytas, a robotic arm company.
Dominguez said that having students work while they attend classes is more valuable than spending four years earning an engineering degree at a university.
“You’re getting on-the-job training, which gives you a skillset,” he said. “You’re learning on the job versus going to class and not having a job. You’re immediately productive for the employer.”
Best of all, Dominguez noted, students who work at the apprenticeships have a high probability of being retained when they complete the program. “Once they finish their participation, they are a highly valued journeyman employee,” he said.
To back this up, Caffery compared a student who has an apprenticeship to a student who pursues a university degree. At the end of four years, the student with an apprenticeship has earned a total of between $175,000 to $225,000 and has four years of work experience. The student who pursued a degree is $90,000 in debt and has no work experience.
Dominguez said it’s important for community colleges in Orange County to provide trained employees to support businesses in the region.
“Manufacturing is big in Orange County,” he said. “It’s of strategic importance to the region and to the nation. To the degree that colleges can support the industry, the more successful the companies will be and then they will be able to stay in California.”
To learn more about Orange County’s industrial automation apprenticeship programs, visit the MAP2 website at https://www.map2apprentice.org/ .
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