By 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects there will be 1.2 million unfilled jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
But the newly opened 162,000-square-foot Tennessee College of Applied Technology-Smyrna Campus — which was built through a partnership between the state and Nissan North America — aims to close the gap in the supply and future demand of highly skilled workers.
The $35 million facility will provide training in automobile technology, electric and small diesel repair, collision repair, welding, machine tool, tool and die, and industrial electrical maintenance and mechatronics.
“The motivation came from the fact that Middle Tennessee and Rutherford County are right up there with the top five growing industrial places in the nation. The governor saw that Nissan was a good partner. Put that all together, along with James King and Carol Puryear (with the Tennessee Board of Regents) and this is what we ended up with,” said Lynn Kreider, director of the TCAT Murfreesboro and Smyrna campuses.
A similar partnership between education and business was forged with the Volkswagen Academy at Chattanooga State Community College. The success with Volkswagen paved way for the cooperation between Tennessee Board of Regents and Nissan, said James King, vice chancellor for the state’s Colleges of Applied Technology.
While it wasn’t at the top of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s capital projects list, King said a visit to the cramped quarters of the programs at TCAT-Murfreesboro campus early on in his tenure solidified the real need to move forward with building a new facility.
State dollars funded the construction of the facility, and Nissan and TCAT share the costs to furnish it.
The result is a state-of-the-art campus that boasts eco-friendly features such as a geothermal HVAC system and computer-controlled windows that maximize solar efficiency, just to name a few.
“We wanted the students to be proud of (the building) and wanted to create the best possible works in the nation right here, and that’s what we have,” Kreider said.
Meeting demands of workforce needs
That being said, not everyone knows TCAT is its own entity. Kreider said the Smyrna campus suffers from an “identity crisis” because many assume it is another Nissan building. While Nissan, which is located just across Nissan Drive and has a shared robotics lab inside the TCAT facility, the school is run by Tennessee Board of Regents.
“We use it and they use it. Students have to be in advanced (classes) before they can get over there,” said Judy Henegar, assistant director of the joint TCAT campuses in Murfreesboro and Smyrna.
Students enrolled at TCAT-Smyrna Campus are not necessarily being trained for the assembly line at Nissan, however.
“It’s more about individual systems and repairing those individual systems, not standing on an assembly line and putting same part on over and over. We don’t train for assembly plants, we train for them to be … certified technicians,” said automotive instructor Charles Vaughn.
Although many of the ways cars operate are the same, modern vehicles have multi-communication modules that control the different functions.“Back in the day, a test light was the primary tool (for repairing cars). Today a diagnostic scanner and laptop are the primary tools (for diagnosing problems),” Vaughn said.
Much of what students learn must be hands-on, he said, from trainers that show intricacies of gear shifting or braking, to real-world learning using automobiles of students and staff.
“We have half a million (dollars) worth of state-of-the-art trainers. … With our new facility, we really needed to step up our game,” Vaughn said. “We’ve created an electronics program that consists of trainers for just about every system of an automobile, including beginning electric trainers … that are networked into a computer.”
That network allows instructors to control the training and test students by setting faults in the program and running scenarios.
Small diesel and electric motor programs will be added, along with collision repair, in the fall.
Welding is a skill that has seen a growing need for skilled workers, Henegar said. The same can be said for those who specialize in tool and die, as well as machine tool fabrication.
Industrial electrical maintenance and mechatronics are another growing segment of job opportunities.
“They’ve been saying robots will replace people the last 20 years. With our particular technology, we’re going to be the ones repairing and fixing, and training people to work on the robots. The people we are training (are) one step above the ones who may be replaced by robots in the future,” Kreider said.
Shawn Ricciardi became interested in IEM and mechatronics after working at Nissan for three years. His expressed
interest was in programmable logic controllers, which automate industrial processes. He’s 20 months in and almost ready to graduate.
“This is definitely a good field to get into if you’re interested in electrical work and like to repair and figure out what’s wrong, and how to fix that problem,” said 27-year-old Ricciardi, who first attended Columbia State Community College to become a paramedic.
Tennessee Reconnect likely to boost enrollment
Ricciardi is also indicative of many students who come through TCAT, who are attending for second and third degrees. Kreider said students with master’s degrees in other fields enroll in TCAT. Students are coming right out of high school, and the programs have a large number of older learners, as well.
Enrollment will be bolstered with the governor’s Tennessee Reconnect program, an expansion of the Tennessee Promise scholarship that allows adults to attend community college tuition-free. Reconnect is an extension of the Tennessee Promise, which provides last-dollar scholarships not covered by the federal Pell Grant, the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship, or state student assistance funds.
“We’re proud of the fact we put out students that are ready to work and they leave here with no debt,” Kreider said.
Luis Gonzalez is one of the adults who will benefit from the Tennessee Reconnect Act. The 43-year-old is currently employed at a plastics manufacturing plant in La Vergne. Supervisors suggested he could benefit from enrolling in TCAT-Smyrna. He wasn’t going to let age get in the way of opportunity.
“I already wasted a lot of time. I kept saying, ‘Later, later.’ I just decided it’s time,” said Gonzalez, who works day shift and plans to attend night classes for machine tool training from 5-10 p.m.
Students don’t have to wait to enroll.
“We have open enrollment. Every time we have a vacancy, we have a new student. We usually try to enroll two, maximum three times in a trimester,” said Henegar, explaining that the degrees are based on clock hours instead of semesters. “When a student completes all the course work, they can graduate. Graduation is three times a year.”
Programs start at 7:45 a.m. and go until 10 p.m. to accommodate the varied schedules of students, Henegar said. And the demand for skilled workers is so high right now, often students begin working in the industry before they even graduate, Henegar said.
“The instructors take pride in seeing the students find a good job, get a career and be able to support themselves,” Henegar said.
This article originally appears in the Daily News Journal.