August 7, 2015
by Melanie Balakit
Fairview High School will launch a new program this year to train students for careers in an increasingly automated manufacturing industry.
It’s the first school in Williamson County to offer a program in mechatronics, an emerging field that combines different types of engineering and use of programmable logic controllers. School district officials and manufacturers say the program will prepare students for well-paid, in-demand jobs.
Taking classes at Fairview does multiple things for students. They get to work on equipment at school and a local manufacturing plant, and coursework will count toward both their high school degree and credit at Columbia State Community College.
“We want students to walk across the stage with a high school diploma and associate’s degree,” said WCS Director of Career and Technical Education Dave Allen.
Mechatronics jobs in high demand
Local manufacturers say there’s big demand for maintenance workers trained in mechatronics.
“This vocational path has kind of deteriorated and now there’s a resurgence in it. Manufacturers are starving for multi-craft maintenance technicians,” said Wayne Ellington, a supervisor of trim and chassis maintenance and engineering at Nissan North America.
Nissan’s Smyrna manufacturing plant has underhired technicians for about three years, Ellington said. The company has recruited for these positions locally and nationally at Skills USA competitions, he said.
“It’s a step up from the old days from having an electrician to keep care of piping, a welder to keep care of welding. It’s keeping care systems that are more high speed and very complex,” Ellington said.
Scott Fetzer Electrical Group, a manufacturer based in Fairview, is in a similar situation. Director of Operations Matt Bush said the company is looking for workers to fill robotic engineer and machine technologist positions.
“They’re maintenance positions,” Bush said. “They’ll work on automated machines and keep them running.”
With a two-year degree, an inexperienced technician can start at $55,000 a year at Nissan, Ellington said. At Scott Fetzer Electrical Group in Fairview, a technician with a two-year degree can make $45,000 to $50,000, Bush said.
Technicians use different tools such as thermographic cameras and ultrasound guns to keep the plant running. Since there’s a shortage of workers, technicians can make more by working overtime.
“I think kids are thirsty for really complex problem-solving abilities,” said Fairview High Principal Juli Oyer.
Growing mechatronics presence in Middle Tennessee
Mechatronics training is young, but expanding in Middle Tennessee schools.
The first students with a four-year degree in mechatronics engineering at Middle Tennessee State University will graduate next spring. Columbia State Community College launched a two-year mechatronics program three years ago and also offers certification. The Tennessee College of Applied Technology also offers mechatronics training.
“Manufacturing across the country has been revitalized and moved to a much level higher of technology. Everything seems to be computer-based. Just staying up with the times and keeping current with practices in the industry, we felt the need to do that,” said Columbia State Dean of Science, Technology and Math Dearl Lampley.
Two robotic arms lift products at Scott Fetzer Electrical Group in Fairview, Tenn., Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. The company is partnering with nearby Fairview High School and Columbia State Community College to develop a mechatronics program for students. (Photo: Jae S. Lee / The Tennessean)