TCAT and Nissan Address Changing Tech Skills in Job Market

Spring is a time when high school and college seniors start thinking about what comes after graduation, but in today’s tech heavy world, the skills they will need are changing quickly. About ten years ago a massive technology skills gap developed between what students (and even current employees) knew, and what the business world needed, especially in advanced manufacturing. A few years ago, Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) in Murfreesboro and Nissan began working on an education partnership to address this issue. The results have been phenomenal.

Now in its third year, a joint-use training facility, originally proposed in 2013 by Governor Haslam, located in Smyrna, has become a gem in addressing the skills gap in advanced manufacturing in the local area. While the campus offers post-secondary training, TCAT and Nissan are also heavily involved with the Rutherford County Schools in developing an introduction to needed skills and job information as early as middle school.

They have worked with the county Career and Technical Education Coordinator to create a progression for student’s interest in industrial electrical maintenance (also known as mechatronics), machine tool technology, and automotive technology beginning their freshman year, however, the mechatronics program is currently only available at one high school due to the cost of equipment.

During the summer, TCAT and Nissan participate in a teacher externship organized by the Economic Development department at the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce.

“Teachers tell us they had no idea how many roles that were available at Nissan,” said Dan Caldwell, who heads Nissan’s Learning Pathways program. “It helps them frame up approaches to teach using real world examples.”

The future of technology is growing. “We have tried to take a 50,000-foot view,” adds Caldwell. “The national skills coalition in Washington, DC says that 53% of the nation’s jobs require technical skills beyond high school, but only 43% of Americans have these skills.” The partnership is addressing the problem.

The idea of creating a partnership came about organically. Motlow State Community College and Bridgestone had developed a similar program a few years earlier, and Nissan and TCAT gravitated toward each other as they both had similar training facility needs. Both programs aligned with Haslam’s Drive to 55 Initiative, with a goal to have 55% of Tennesseans to have some post-secondary training. Funding became available for the new training facility, and a number of Nissan suppliers jumped on board to supply equipment so students would have training on the most current equipment.

As the demand for more post-secondary education in technology skills continues to grow, Nissan and TCAT know that they cannot take their foot off the gas. Not only is advanced manufacturing increasing the use of automation, but Nissan is doing a model refresh of 70% of their line up in 20 months. That means retooling the entire plant. To do that, they will need highly skilled workers who have a strong background in mechatronics, which is a necessary skill to program and maintain all of the robots used in the plant. Higher paying, high skills jobs are replacing many of the lower-skill jobs.

Research done by career development expert Laurence Shatkin, and reported in a blog for Southern New Hampshire University, says that technology is changing the way we do nearly every job with innovations in artificial intelligence and automation. He discovered that the biggest jumps in skills requirements were in traditionally manual fields such as forestry, construction, and manufacturing.

In the article, Shatkin notes that “Manufacturers aren’t just making the same diesel pump every week for years on end, and employers are struggling to find people who have flexible intellectual and social skills to learn new machinery and processes quickly.” The article went on to say that “As technology skills continue to grow in demand, workers will succeed when they — in partnership with educational institutions and employers — foster their capacity to learn new skills.”

Part of the program Nissan has developed with TCAT is a work/study apprenticeship model for five to seven current students. During the last four to six months of their education, these students work part-time for Nissan while completing their training. “This allows the candidates to know if working for Nissan is what they want to do,” said Caldwell, “and if they fit the culture. In the last three years, every one of these work/study students has become a Nissan employee.”

Nissan is doing just what Shatkin has addressed. They have gradually replaced jobs that are strenuous or put humans at risk. Humans are, says, Caldwell, best at things that take finesse. Finesse plus high-level technology training is landing local students well-paying jobs right out of school, with the door open to many future opportunities for advancement.

“TCAT graduates can go anywhere they choose,” said Caldwell. About 10% go to Nissan, and 90% are snapped up by Nissan suppliers and into other industries.”

Caldwell notes that machines are not taking human jobs, but jobs are changing, requiring more critical thinking skills and technological skills. There is no slowing down in the foreseeable future, and the Nissan and TCAT partnership intends to continue to give students the skills necessary to succeed and be good citizens.