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Greenville Business Magazine

Understanding Industry: Innovation and training must evolve together

By Rodney Jones

Back in the day, industry had two issues: trying to figure out the next step to make their process better and stronger, and how to stay competitive in today’s market.   

I started working when I was 17 years old at a Winn-Dixie grocery store making $6.25 per hour. In 1995, my freshman year in college, I received a Tech Scholar position at Michelin Tire Corporation starting out at $10 per hour - and you couldn’t tell this 18-year-old boy nothing. I was going to be rich!  At the age of 21, I got married to my high school sweetheart and my focus was in the world of maintenance. I then started working in textiles, where my interest grew. Between Milliken, Glen Raven, and back to Michelin, my focus was to learn as much as I could and be the best employee I could be. I finally moved from operator to technician. I started going to conferences and seminars, trying to gain as much knowledge as I could. In September of 2007 I was offered the lead position of the maintenance shop and my true journey began. 

Having this position to make decisions now required that I start focusing on my recent knowledge and background. I started to analyze what would have made my job better when I was a machine operator. What could have made my job easier when I was a floor technician? As ideas came to mind I wrote them down. I then prioritized them in order of which were easier to get done and started to work. Within three to four years, we had an almost completely new system running.

I was then approached by an old college classmate about teaching. In January of 2014, I accepted a night adjunct teaching position with Tri-County Technical College. Leading a maintenance shop and teaching the subject matter at the same time really helped bring this industry picture together. I could see the issues clearly. Industry was changing and grasping onto new cutting-edge technologies, while the employee workforce was not being trained and was unaware of this new concept. I decided the education piece is where I needed to focus my time, and in November of 2014 I accepted a role as director of mechatronics for Greenville Technical College and left industry. With extensive training and program building, in three years I helped put together one of the strongest mechatronics departments in the Upstate. I am now at Clemson University working as the industry trainer specialist for workforce development. 

Today, industry has changed but is also still the same. We are still looking at our processes and trying to figure out what can make them better. We are still trying to figure out how to stay competitive. However, this new term “innovation,” has added a more robust meaning to how we answer those questions. What is innovation? It can be explained several different ways, but the main point of it is to introduce something new. This brings me to another term you hear which is STEM (science, technology, education and mathematics), integrating all of those subjects together in a hands-on learning experience. Those two terms together have emphasized the use of robots or robotics in industry.  

Companies are now looking at new technologies to enhance their process, while at the same time making them competitive. How do we decrease downtime and high employee turnover rates? One CEO states, “If we could just keep the machine running and people working, everything will be OK.”

 I agree with that statement, so how does one do it? Highway I-85 runs a major stretch of industry - big manufacturing and textile companies that employ thousands of locals and others - right through Greenville, which sits right between Atlanta and Charlotte. Therefore, the grade schools, technical colleges, and universities have all started creating curriculums focusing on terms like innovation, STEM, and robotics. 

PLCs (programmable logic controls) and robotics are two subjects that are growing fast. Having a person who can program and fix a robot is a golden ticket these days. The field of mechatronics is highly needed today in industry. From industry robots to collaborative robots to collaborative industry robot cells w/ PLC integration, the training is being taught. 

Technology that creates innovation is evolving so fast, it is hard to stay up to date with it. Just when we thought we had the answer, here come two more terms, AI (artificial intelligence) and VR (virtual reality). Engineering degrees are starting to focus on AI and VR, but with all this education, companies are having to adjust their pay scales to accommodate the skill set workers possess. Companies today are starting pay bands for technicians between $23 and $28 per hour if they have the experience and education their company desires.  

So, do you pay for education only, or do you pay for years of experience as well? Education is a must with technology changing so fast, but education with no experience can be a bad hire as well. The key to great industry is finding educated/experienced employees who have a drive to be the best, and not looking for doctorate and master’s degrees only, but employees with years of experience. Also, employees with integrity and goals are a must. Having adequate training in place, where you can offer to help get your workforce trained to the new technology you are implementing, is another key. Because as we all know, a company is no good without well-trained employees.

Rodney Jones is an industry project manager at Clemson University Center for Workforce Development.