CLEMSON — Technical colleges across the state have begun using a new curriculum that Clemson University researchers have developed to help teach students the basic skills they need to land a job in a modern manufacturing plant.

The curriculum is spreading as instructors from the K-12 system, technical colleges and universities scramble to educate the workers who will be critical in meeting the needs of the state’s employers and recruiting the next big industry.

Students who take the curriculum have a better shot at landing decent-paying jobs that sometimes go unfilled for months because employers can’t find qualified candidates. The average manufacturing technician in the state makes $55,000 a year.

The curriculum includes virtual-reality simulations and was written by researchers at the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development. It has been deployed to a quarter of the state’s technical colleges and the Pickens County Career and Technology Center.

While the curriculum helps students find jobs, it can also be a path to working on a degree in Clemson’s College of Engineering and Science.

“Our role in the college is to recruit virtuoso and diverse student talent and provide them with world-class educational, research and engagement experience, thereby creating the next generation of engineers and scientists,” said the college’s dean, Anand Gramopadhye.

The partnerships with the K-12 system and technical colleges are part of the university’s broader effort to advance education in the package of disciplines known as STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

It used to be that high-school graduates who didn’t further their educations could rely on factory work to make a decent living. But many low-skill jobs have been lost to overseas competition and aren’t coming back.

Even entry-level work in a modern manufacturing plant requires a basic skill set that typically isn’t taught in high school, said Kris Frady, assistant director of the Center for Workforce Development.

“We want to attract more business, we want to expand, but we can’t do that if we can’t fill the basic workforce needs,” Frady said.

David Stafford, chief human resource officer for Michelin North America, said it is important for Michelin and other companies to have access to a more skilled technical workforce.

“Efforts such as Clemson’s advanced manufacturing skills program or Greenville Tech’s efforts to build the Center for Manufacturing Innovation are welcome examples of partnerships between business and academic institutions to enhance the skill set of our workforce of the future,” Stafford said.

The four-part curriculum developed at Clemson teaches a range of manufacturing basics, including maintenance, safety and how to use a micrometer. The curriculum helps students prepare for a series of tests that, if passed, earn them certification through the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council.

With a resurgence in U.S. manufacturing, the time for training is now, said Hope Rivers, vice president for academic and student affairs for the state Technical College System.

“They are not the factories of old,” she said. “Things are more complex. A lot of the technology needed to run the machinery is more advanced.

“Individuals will need more than a high-school diploma but maybe less than a four-year degree to come in and really get those good jobs. It’s a change in landscape.”

Technical colleges have been working for more than 50 years to attract industry to the state by creating a pool of well-qualified workers. The Clemson curriculum does not replace programs the colleges have in place, but represents one of the newest tools available to them to meet manufacturers’ current needs.

Greenville Technical College offers students the chance to take parts of the curriculum then come back to the other sections later.

Keith Miller, the college’s president, said not all students interested in manufacturing are directly out of high school. Many are already in the workforce and have families.

“Flexibility is absolutely critical to this,” he said.

The curriculum includes three-dimensional illustrations and a virtual-reality simulation based on BMW’s factory floor in Greer.

The simulation allows students to assume the role of auditor and look for violations to help reinforce what they have read in textbooks, said Kapil Chalil Madathil, director of technology operations at the Center for Workforce Development.

Sonny White, president of Midlands Technical College, said the simulators accelerate training and could be expanded to a variety of industries.

“Whether it be energy or advanced manufacturing, there is tremendous value in that process,” he said.

Ben Dillard, president of Florence-Darlington Technical College, said continuing education instructors are pleased with the Clemson curriculum. It offers a basic knowledge of several disciplines, which is critical to finding a job as technology rapidly changes.

“What companies are looking for today is somebody who is very versatile in their skills,” Dillard said. “They want somebody who knows something about hydraulics, pneumatics, electronics, electricity and mechanics. This curriculum addresses all of those issues.”

Melissa Zelaya, program manager for the Center for Workforce Development, helped write the curriculum. What excites her most is that it could reach a worldwide audience through  the Internet.

Zelaya said she also hopes the curriculum will help instill confidence in workers whose formal education goes no further than high school.

“A more technical field will allow them to earn better pay and move up the social ladder,” she said.

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