In a cavernous machine shop southwest of downtown, Robert I. Rayburn was bent over a lathe earlier this month, shaving thin twists of metal from a solid block of aluminum spinning in the machine.
“When I graduate, I want to do stuff like this,” said the 17-year-old high school junior, pushing up his safety glasses and gesturing at the rows of metalworking machines on the concrete floor. “Machinists are in big demand.”
In this age of offshored labor, aspiring to a job in manufacturing sounds almost quaint. Didn’t all those jobs disappear to China and India long ago?
Actually, no. According to government data, even though manufacturing in general continues to shrink as a proportion of the U.S. economy, domestic high-tech manufacturing has been expanding, and with it, the need for skilled workers.
Hence the class Mr. Rayburn and 15 other high school students are taking at the Manufacturing Technology Academy, or MTA, a 4- year-old dual-enrollment program on the southwest campus of the two-year, public St. Philip’s College. After entering the program in their junior year of high school, students who complete their studies pick up 30 college credits along with their diplomas. That’s enough to get them hired as skilled employees, which many quickly are.
So an industry often thought of as an American anachronism is proving to be a bright spot for technically minded students such as Mr. Rayburn. Instead of the college debt and tough job hunts that many graduating high school students face, manufacturing students here in San Antonio are hearing a very different message from employers:We want to hire you. Desperately. Right out of high school.We’ll even pay for college.
Program Driven by Business
It’s a measure of the manufacturing sector’s hunger for new employees that the MTA and the two other academies located on the southwest campus of St. Philip’s College, which occupies several buildings on the grounds of the former Kelly Air Force Base, were initiated by local employers.
“That’s the model—that it’s driven by business,” said Richard V. Butler, an economics professor at San Antonio’s Trinity University who chairs the academies’ board of directors.“We only create an academy if business tells us they want that, and they’re willing to contribute to it.”
Marivel Nañez, who was the coordinator of the MTA when it took its first class of juniors in 2004, remembers the urgency expressed by the San Antonio Manufacturers Association when it reached out to this city’s Alamo Community College District, of which St. Philip’s College is a part.
“SAMA came in and said they had a need,” recalled Ms. Nañez, who is now the coordinator of the Alamo Area Aerospace Academy. The first of the three academies, it began in the 2001-02 school year, followed by the Information Technology Security Academy, which opened in 2002. The automaker Toyota had broken ground in 2003 on what is now a pickup-truck factory south of the city’s downtown that employs about 2,000 people, many of them in manufacturing.
“That’s part of what triggered the sense of what was needed,” Ms. Nañez said.
Toyota hasn’t yet hired any MTA students, either as interns or full-time employees. But the huge company’s entry into the job market spurred the creation of new jobs, including about 1,000 new positions at nearby parts suppliers, and opened vacancies as employees left other companies to join Toyota.
With the help of grants and cooperation from some of San Antonio’s 19 independent school districts, MTA started in the 2004-05 school year with 11 students from local high schools, 10 of whom ended up graduating.
MTA now has 28 students, including 10 at a satellite location in New Braunfels, Texas, about 34 miles northeast of San Antonio, which started offering classes last August. And it could take a lot more.
Although about $1.5 million worth of stateof- the-art equipment is on the MTA shop floor in San Antonio, the current class of 10 juniors and eight seniors there is so small that it’s making use of only a small fraction of the machines.
Gene Bowman, the director of the Alamo Academies, as the three schools are collectively known, said that between MTA’s locations in San Antonio and New Braunfels, the program could accommodate 132 students. “We’re not sending nearly enough kids to places like this,” Mr. Butler said, gesturing to the idle machines. “That’s the screaming need.”
Going to School at Night
Arnold Cervantes knows about that need. After graduating in 2003 from this city’s alternative Phoenix High School with both a diploma and a one-year certificate-of-completion degree from St. Philip’s College through the MTA program, he was immediately hired as a machinist by Meyer Machine Co. in San Antonio.A few months later, he was hired away by Chromalloy Power Services Corp., also based here, for a better job with more money.
“[MTA] helped me a lot—it’s where I got the background” for work, said Mr. Cervantes, 23.
He now makes about $17 an hour, plus benefits and overtime, as a computer-numerical- control, or CNC, machinist, overhauling aircraft engines for such Chromalloy clients as Fort Worth-based American Airlines. But he’s not done with his education.
Since graduating five years ago, Mr. Cervantes has completed a second certificate program at St. Philip’s, and expects to finish his Associate of Applied Science degree in CNC manufacturing by spring of next year. After that, he wants to earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical-engineering, given that the company fully reimburses work-related tuition.
Daniel J. Leyva, a 2006 MTA graduate who is 22, also had praise for the practical experience he got in his classes. “I think it’s a really good program,” said Mr. Leyva, who is planning to complete his associate’s degree at night after his shift as a machine-tool operator at Chromalloy Component Services here. “I’m the first one in my family to go and get a good job and get an education.”
On the strength of his internship work at Chromalloy, Mr. Leyva was hired full time while finishing his last year of high school. He now makes about $18 an hour, plus benefits and overtime.
Would-be MTA students have to pass at least one of St. Philip’s three placement exams in reading comprehension, English, and elementary algebra, or earn passing scores on the state’s Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills before they can start taking MTA classes as juniors. They must also maintain a C average in their coursework and keep up with the blistering pace of the college-level manufacturing class.
“It’s not for the dumb kids,” Klaus D. Weiswurm, the chief executive officer of San Antonio-based Instruments Technology Machinery, which custom-makes precision machines and manufacturing equipment, said of the MTA program. “You have to be sharp.”
The program’s rate of placing MTA graduates in full-time manufacturing jobs is about 70 percent. Its graduation rate, meanwhile, is about 68 percent, said Ernest Gil, the MTA’s coordinator. He attributes the attrition to the pace of the courses, which he said demand as much dedication as a real job.
“A lot of kids, they don’t show up,” Mr. Gil said. Gesturing at an MTA instructor working with his students, he said: “These guys go 100 miles an hour with their hair on fire. If you miss three days, you’re lost.”
Starting in their junior year, students in the MTA program catch an early high school bus for morning classes and shop work on the college’s machines, then get a ride back to their regular schools.
“The students who are interested in going to the academy are really motivated,” said Shirley T. Flores, an instructionalsupport teacher at Northside Independent School District in San Antonio.
The school districts also pay for students’ MTA books and for an optional three-week introductory summer class for middle school students interested in machine work.
Between their junior and senior years of high school, all MTA students must work 40 hours per week in an eight-week internship. They earn from $8 to $12 an hour, depending on the company and the work.
Ms. Nañez said the MTA program can help students who are struggling academically and financially to see a practical application to what they learn in class, and give them a reason to stay in school and graduate.
“They can see at the end [of high school], there’s the company; they can help ... pay for [college], which their parents can’t,” she said.
Skilled Workers in Demand
With facilities for scores of major manufacturing companies located in the San Antonio area, including the Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp., Pratt & Whitney, and Toyota, this city is particularly hungry for workers with the right stuff.
But it’s far from an isolated case. In a 2005 survey of American manufacturing companies and human-resources professionals by the Swiss company Deloitte Consulting LLP, on behalf of the Washington-based National Association of Manufacturers, 90 percent of the 800 respondents reported shortages of skilled production employees, including machinists and technicians.
A 2006 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that between 1983 and 2002, while low- and middle-skill manufacturing jobs declined quickly, high-skill manufacturing employment rose 37 percent— an increase of about 1.2 million jobs.
“At the same time that the U.S. manufacturing sector is losing jobs across the nation, it is undergoing a profound transformation,” the report said.
“While heightened productivity and globalization have led to job losses for less-skilled U.S. workers, they have also helped create high-skill jobs.” That’s certainly been the experience of Steven C. Valdez, the human-resources and training manager of Chromalloy Power Services. “We can’t find enough skilled people; we have to go out of state,” he said. “I’ve had to go to Tennessee and Georgia to find people. That’s crazy.”
“It’s a transition to a more computerized robotics system. The people who are employed there are paid more because they have to be more skilled,” said Peggy M.Walton, the director of the National Center for the American Workforce, at the National Association of Manufacturers.
“What we need is a whole new system of technical education” of the type available at MTA, she said. “I’m really excited about what they’re doing.”
Despite the availability of manufacturing jobs, it remains to be seen whether more students like Mr. Rayburn will come to MTA to prepare for them.
“Right now we’re at … 16 instead of 48,” Mr. Gil said, referring to the number of students that the San Antonio-based portion of the MTA program could serve if it had alternating morning and afternoon classes like the aerospace academy.
Many people think of manufacturing as “a dull, dirty job that’s more or less a sweatshop,” said Jose A. Ybarra, the program coordinator for manufacturing- engineering technology at St. Philip’s College. “It’s not a ‘glamorous’ job, not like information technology.”
Lawrence Mishel, the president of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, said “manufacturing suffers because people wrongly but widely don’t perceive that industry as part of the future.”
“There’s a false sense that it’s elitist to prepare kids for something other than college,” he said. “There’s a fair amount of condescension for skills that don’t require book learning.”
Several MTA instructors and affiliated employers said the program has been slower to expand than the other academies because of manufacturing’s dated image.
“It’s not all grunt muscle like it used to be,” said Mr. Weiswurm of Instruments Technology Machinery. Because most manufacturing jobs are highly mechanized, he said, the industry’s work areas tend to be clean and air-conditioned, but in the mind of many parents and educators, manufacturing workers “are shoveling coal into an engine on the Titanic.”
Some parents remember working long hours at repetitive manual manufacturing jobs in the city’s textile plants before those positions were shipped overseas, MTA officials said, and they want a better life for their children. “It’s an uphill battle,” Mr. Butler said.
Ms. Nañez, who said she has visited countless cafeterias, parents’ nights, and PTA meetings in an effort to recruit students for MTA, recalls once having given out 1,500 applications and gotten just 64 filled out.
Mr. Gil said that view is just as common among educators. “The counselors, the principals— we have to beg, steal, and borrow to get them to let us in” to recruit students at high schools, Mr. Gil said. “They have this mind-set from 30, 40 years ago.”
“The high schools have to be receptive to the change” in manufacturing, agreed Mr. Valdez of Chromalloy. “We don’t have enough skilled manufacturing [employees]. What are we going to do?”
Pointing to the MTA shop with the high school students at work, he added: “It’s got to start here.”
Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation at www.kauffman.org
A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2008 edition of Education Week as Made in America