An Employer-Educator Model for Filling IIoT Roles

March 21, 2022
Improving workforce development outcomes and closing the skills gap depends on how well institutions and industries can work together. An interview with educators at Patrick & Henry Community College conducted by Festo.

When it comes to closing the skills gap in industry, community colleges are in the sweet spot. More nimble and focused than four-year institutions, community colleges have the advantage in response time, affordability, and access to forward-thinking programs. They are uniquely positioned to become America’s innovation hubs, and they’re hard at work building the career and technical education programs that students and employers so desperately need.

Patrick & Henry Community College (PHCC) in Martinsville, Va., is a prime example, having built an employer-educator model centered on IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) and Industry 4.0 preparedness. Daniel Edwards, instructor of industrial electronics technology, and David Dillard, associate professor of general engineering technology, at PHCC’s award-winning Advanced Manufacturing and Skilled Trades program explain why the model works.

What attracts employers and students to your program?
Daniel Edwards: The programs that Mr. Dillard and I lead, Industrial Electronics Technology and General Engineering Technology, are designed to anticipate the technological innovation and challenges people will encounter in today’s industrial workplace.

The employers we work with appreciate the flexibility of the training because it’s modular and customizable to their needs. Companies hire our graduates knowing these men and women are already highly trained to troubleshoot and handle a variety of tasks whether the job requires mechanical, electric, or fluid power maintenance.

At first, our students arrive knowing very little about industrial technology. Once they can interact with the cyber-physical systems, they’re able to see and touch the result of digital transformation in modern manufacturing. They realize they’re at the forefront of something big, walking around in what looks and feels like the future. It doesn’t take long for them to see the big picture and realize the value of having access to these career pathways.

David Dillard: We’re fortunate to have a 103,000 square foot facility where we can provide industry tours to the public. We give tours to K-12 all the way up to seasoned working professionals. They’re really surprised at the level of technology involved in the training system. It piques students’ curiosity to picture themselves in that setting, operating networked machinery alongside robots.

When students tour the lab and decide, ‘hey, I can do this’ that’s always an exciting and rewarding moment for us as teachers.

When employers tour the lab and see the cyber-physical workstations, they know the students will be well-equipped to meet industry needs. The simulated smart factory equipment the students train on is exactly like what they have on their factory floor.

What’s your approach to getting people qualified for Industry 4.0?
Dillard: Stackable credentials are a huge part of our student success. The students can earn certifications without taking an entire semester to do so. That really keeps them motivated and focused. They have a lot of small victories leading up to their degree and it empowers them because they know each certification will increase their employability. It also lends confidence to hiring managers to know these candidates have industry-recognized micro-credentials.

Edwards: In addition to what David mentioned, we’re focused on bringing industry and education together through advisory boards, internships, field trips, and classroom visits. Employers bring industry knowledge to the table, bringing material covered in the classroom to light. Employer partnerships also ensure students stay current in IIoT developments. We see the effectiveness of this model reflected in the demand for our programs—it’s higher than the number of students we can train. I can’t graduate them fast enough. Sometimes employers will scoop them up before they finish the program.

You started out with a mechatronics program. What did it take to scale that program into comprehensive training for Industry 4.0?
Edwards: It starts with baby steps. We scaled from a solid foundation in mechatronics first to be able to innovate and evolve into stackable credential offerings for Industry 4.0. By making incremental investments in the right equipment (such as the Festo MPS Series) we went from teaching mechatronics to offering various courses and career pathways in advanced manufacturing.

Dillard: In 2018, we integrated the Festo Industry 4.0 Certification Program (FI4.0CP) into our existing programs in mechatronics, industrial electronics technology, and general engineering technology. This allowed us to provide industry approved certifications in mechanical systems, electrical systems, pneumatic systems, programmable logic controllers, and robotic systems. To date, we’ve issued more than 1,200 certifications.

What additional steps can be taken in the process of building these types of programs?
Edwards: The first thing I would advise instructors to do is to get certified in Industry 4.0. It only takes a few days to complete the NC3 (National Coalition of Certification Centers) Train-the-Trainer workshop. There’s a lot of value in terms of what you can relay to students, and it can make a big impact on how you decide to develop your programs. I recently went to a Train-the-Trainer event and was happy to see several K-12 instructors in attendance.

It’s important to nurture relationships with industry by starting locally. A local company, American Electric Power (AEP), donated $200,000 to our program; that’s how we were able to purchase the equipment we needed to teach Level 1 of the Industry 4.0 certification program. Now we’re issuing Level I and Level II certifications and working towards Level III soon.

Community organizations and foundations can also play a role. Thanks to funding from the AEP Foundation, we were able to complete our equipment sets for Level I and II certifications, and together we established the AEP Foundation Industry 4.0 Alliance. The Harvest Foundation generously provided equipment for Level III, making PHCC the first in the nation to offer all three levels of Fi4.0CP.

Dillard: I would add that while it’s been difficult with Covid-19, if you can, network face-to-face with employers and teachers from other schools because it can lead to new ideas, relationships, and opportunities

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