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ATE centers help meet demand for tech skills

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​The bad economy may be drying up many jobs, but industries from agriculture to manufacturing are seeking more technologically savvy workers—and the nation’s 36 Advanced Technological Education (ATE) centers are at the forefront in fostering those skills.

The National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded centers are mainly housed at community colleges, but they work closely with universities, government agencies and industries to help meet the growing need for advanced technicians. NSF provides about $51 million annually to support ATE centers and their projects.

From coast to coast, there are nearly 300 ATE projects up and running. Eileen Lewis, program director at NSF, said that in keeping with the concept of ATE providing education, “We don’t want to just focus on training. We also want students to have 21st century skills.”

Emerging fields where technicians are especially in demand include anything related to energy, according to Lewis.

“Biofuels, alternative energy and incorporating green in other technical areas to make normal processes a little greener have become popular,” she said.

One of the ATE centers focuses on car manufacturing. Given the hits the auto industry has taken, focusing on manufacturing cars may raise a few eyebrows, but education officials say it’s actually a good time to prepare for when the economy recovers and demand will grow again.

 “We have an industry advisory board and do assessments with managers to figure out critical needs for now and project ahead for the next five years,” said Beverly Hilderbrand, director of the Consortium for Alabama Regional Center for Automotive Manufacturing (CARCAM) at Gadsden State Community College in Alabama. 

Advanced technology courses within the automotive degree programs are offered at CARCAM’s nine partner community colleges across Alabama, which has several Toyota manufacturing facilities. The courses cover factory-floor robotics, programmable controls and other highly automated systems.

Part of the center’s recruiting efforts includes tapping industry to champion available jobs. Automotive manufacturers and suppliers provide tours and career information during annual science, technology, engineering and math camps, and CARCAM offers workshops spotlighting successful female CARCAM students and graduates while informing educators and industry personnel about best practices for recruiting and retaining women.

In Arizona, the Maricopa Advanced Technology Education Center (MATEC) helps meet the need for more highly skilled technicians in the semiconductor, automated manufacturing and electronics fields. Several projects are under the MATEC umbrella including NetWorks, a resource center that offers a digital resource library, Web seminar series, a national conference and a virtual technology education community.

Another project is eSyst, a systems view of electronics and projects designed to reform electronics education by revising the curriculum to shift the focus from a solely task-level focus to a comprehensive understanding of a system.

“By using a top down approach, it has been possible to break away from the limitations of the more usual treatment that builds up from basic components but invariably runs out of time before it reaches any interesting applications,” said Lara Smith, MATEC project manager.

By putting the concepts into a realistic context, students see the importance of what they are learning and the processes to trouble shoot, prioritize and report clearly, Smith said.

The growing need for electronic technicians across industries has also prompted the need to change how students are trained.

“Positions that embody electronic technician skills are now contained in a wide range of industries including biotechnology, manufacturing, entertainment, automotive and consumer,” Smith said. “Much of the training that technicians acquired as recently as five years ago has become out-of-date due to rapid technological advancements in many areas of electronics.”

And employers are seeking workers with up-to-date skills, but enrollment in technology programs is down, she added.

Other ATE centers and projects include the Northeast Biomanufacturing Center and Collaborative (NBC2) at Great Bay Community College in New Hampshire and the Institute for Convergence of Optical Network Systems (ICONS) at the City College of San Francisco.

NBC2 prepares technicians for large-scale manufacturing of new biological projects as the industry moves from discovery research to process development to mass product production. The project also includes a global biomanufacturing curriculum that prepares students for 10 careers and provides the foundation for lifelong learning.

ICONS works to educate information and communications technicians. As this industry rapidly evolves, technicians who keep the systems functioning have become even more important. ICONS is creating courses for a new certificate program and a new associate degree.

Students get hands-on experiences by working with the fiber optic network that connects the college’s campuses, and students in the wireless course support wireless local area networks used by college students.

The college’s computer networking and information technology department is a Cisco Regional Academy and ICONS has been able to build on that. Cisco’s Networking Academy has more than 10 years of collaboration with community colleges, enabling them to respond to the need for a skilled workforce in IT and networking, said Bill Sounders, director of public affairs for Cisco.

The Networking Academy provides students with the technical skills they need to succeed in a wide range of occupations and the foundation to pursue additional technical education or training in numerous career paths.

Nearly 3 million more skilled networking professional are estimated to be needed globally by the year 2012, said Sounders, citing recent research.

“As networks become more ubiquitous and increasingly complex, the requirements for skilled network professionals have rapidly accelerated and evolved,” he said.

EMC, an information and storage management corporation, also offers an education program.  The EMC Academic Alliance began in 2006 to train candidates about storage technology. Kim Yohannan, manager of the alliance, said that they’ve found that a lot of new graduates know little about storage infrastructure.

“The core material is not specific to EMC because the idea is to make sure people know how storage fits in to the infrastructure of IT. It’s important that they understand how it fits into the bigger picture,” Yohannan said.

As the rate of information constantly increases, there is an ever-growing need for trained storage and technology specialists. Yohannan said that EMC has been working closely with some ATE centers.

 “We’re definitely making an impact on the industry. It’s a real collaboration,” said NSF’s Lewis. “They let us know what they want and need, and we provide the person that provides them with the technicians.”

For more information about ATE centers, visit www.atecenters.org.

 
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