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Manufacturers' need workers to run the robots

Automation is creating good-paying jobs operating, maintaining machinery

Anthony Nix knew what he wanted to learn, so he recently combined an industrial mechanics major with an automated manufacturing minor at Spartanburg Community College.

The result is the type of skills that five Upstate technical colleges are now pushing with the creation of TechReadySC and a new mechatronics curriculum that will be uniform across the colleges.

Mechatronics is an effort to combine mechanics, electronics, electrical systems and control systems into the skills that one technician would possess and is part of the technical college system's mission to "build a more competitive work force in the Upstate," said Wendy Walden, Greenville Technical College spokeswoman.

But the program is designed to do more.

It also is an attempt to expose middle and high school students and make their parents aware of a highly skilled, well-paid career that still labors under the perception that it is a dirty, greasy job, said Cynthia Eason, vice president for corporate and economic development at Greenville Tech and chair of TechReadySC.

"Fewer young people are selecting manufacturing as a career" at the time that baby-boomer employees are getting close to retirement, she said. "Our mechatronics will develop the skills needed for 21st century manufacturing and help keep the area competitive globally."

Nix, who graduated early this month and now works at Spartanburg Steel keeping the plant robotics running, agreed the need for workers with mechatronics skills is big and is growing.

"In most plants, maintenance work is divided between mechanics and electricians," he said. "That's not feasible any more. Now, the need is for people who can do both. The more skills you have, the more valuable you are to the company."

He's not alone in that perspective.

Donald Ryerson, human resources manager at Capsugel, said his company fields mechanical, maintenance and electrical workers. While at the announcement of the new program Wednesday, he said, "What excited me is the possibility of combining skills. This program has the potential to pull all these people together."

He said Capsugel's technology -- and its need for multi-skilled workers -- is "changing at the speed of light," and the company would like to hire technicians with multiple skills.

"We have a mature process," he said, "but we are asked to do more in less time with fewer people" -- a feat that requires skilled employees keeping the machinery running.

Bobby Hitt, BMW Manufacturing Co.'s manager of public relations, agreed.

He told those attending the announcement that BMW's body shops are 90 percent to 95 percent automated. The Greer plant, which daily makes about 660 vehicles worth $30 million to $35 million retail, can't afford for machinery to go down.

Every hour that a machine is shut down, the plant loses $1 million, he said.

Machinery "has to work all the time," he said.

The job of keeping the machinery operating at top productivity is a "sophisticated job" garnering high wages up to $100,000 or more, he said. It's also a career open to women as well as men.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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