Center of Manufacturing Innovation aims to close skills gap

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[ ABOVE: Last Wednesday, Greenville Tech officials cut the ribbon and officially opened the Center for Manufacturing Innovation. ]

Jason Premo knows firsthand the problem manufacturers in Greenville County have in finding enough skilled technicians to fill the positions they need to grow their companies.

“As a company expands, finding talent is one of the biggest challenges,” said Premo, who is chairman of Premo Ventures. Premo developed an apprenticeship program for ADEX, an aerospace company, to give the company a pipeline of employees who were ready to produce their first day on the job. “It’s great that a company is bringing in 100 jobs, but what about the next 100?”

Greenville Technical College’s Gene Haas Center for Manufacturing Innovation is designed to train today’s students on the latest advanced manufacturing equipment so they are ready to fill the technical jobs needed for companies to innovate and expand, said Greenville Tech President Keith Miller. The program will also marry the education of the engineer with the education of technicians to mirror real-world work conditions.

“The future of manufacturing will only prosper if we see more schools such as Greenville Tech work together with the manufacturing community to create advanced manufacturing education centers,” said Pete Selleck, chairman and president of Michelin North America.

The impetus for the center came as South Carolina started to come out of the recession in 2010-2011 and manufacturers said there was a critical gap between the skills the area’s workforce had and the skills they needed to grow.

Greenville County is the epicenter of manufacturing in South Carolina, ranking first in gross regional project, first in total payroll for all industries and third in the number of individuals employed in the private sector.

The worker problem was twofold. Many of those working in manufacturing were retiring, and there weren’t enough workers to take their place, often because of the misconception of manufacturing being a dirty and low-skill profession.

The center combats that misconception as soon as students and parents walk into the facility. From a glass-walled lobby, visitors can look down on the center’s ground floor equipped with three- and five-axis lathes, a vertical turning lathe used in the aerospace industry, 3-D printers, hydraulic and pneumatic robots and simulators.

“A lot of people don’t know what today’s manufacturing is,” said David Clayton, the center’s executive director.

Clemson University is a partner in the center, and its involvement is designed to bridge the gap between the education of the technician and the education of the engineer.       The partnership is the first of its kind between a technical college and a research university in the U.S. A manufacturing honors college, which will allow Greenville Tech and Clemson students to work together to solve real-world manufacturing challenges, is also a first. The center also has a 10,000-square-foot business incubator for small startup manufacturers who can rely on the expertise of Greenville Tech instructors and the center’s equipment to help launch their company, Miller said. Three or four startups have already indicated interest in the space and one could be in as soon as a month, Miller and Clayton said.

“I can foresee the need for more incubator space,” Clayton said. “We hope it spawns real specialty manufacturers. The goal is to outgrow it in a year.”

Programs will be offered in a variety of formats, from continuing education workshops and shorter certificate programs to two-year associate degrees and beyond, in machine tool technology, CNC, robotics and mechatronics. Additive manufacturing will be incorporated into the curriculum for machine tool technology and CNC students.

Premo said the center provides manufacturers a way to be actively involved in closing the skills gap.

“I look at it providing a year-long or two-year-long interview,” he said. “It typically takes nine to 18 months for a typical hire to be productive. This program will allow employees to produce on day one to enable the company to grow,” he said.

Many companies and individuals donated equipment and money for the center. Miller called the support tremendous and said it indicates the community’s desire to keep Greenville County’s manufacturing base strong.

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