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Help Wanted: Problem Solvers

Do you know whose hands helped build the newest energy-efficient products you see in the stores today? Specialty glass formed in Somerset for lighting products crafted in Lexington, ENERGY STAR water heaters and refrigerators built in Louisville—all over the state, Kentucky hands are making things that use less electricity.

The push to use energy wisely doesn’t stop with the gadgets themselves. It includes the way these new products are built, how manufacturing facilities that produce them function—and it depends on the brains that go with the hands.

Ken Carroll, vice president of business development at the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers (KAM), says, “Everybody is becoming more efficient, whether it’s about how they use energy, production materials, financial resources, or human resources.”

This intense focus on getting the most out of everything is part of a global concept known as “advanced manufacturing.” The latest technology—from lasers to robotics to computers—plays a big role.

But the real stars in manufacturing are the people.

The skill of thinking
Mention “smart people” and most folks think of doctors or rocket scientists. But KAM’s Ken Carroll has a different concept.

“There are all kinds of smart people in any particular walk of life, especially manufacturing, people who have critical problem-solving skills plus technical knowledge,” Carroll says. “Today’s ‘smart person’ has a number of traits, including very solid reading and math skills, good written and spoken communications skills, critical thinking, ability to work in teams, and knows how to use computer software. Machinists, industrial maintenance techs, tool and die makers, and production workers, all have to be active participants in the problem-solving process for their companies to be competitive.”

A $10 million investment to expand General Electric’s Lexington Lamp advanced manufacturing facility has increased the work force there to more than 150 hourly employees. One of the newest made-in-Kentucky spotlights and floodlights, their Halogen PAR 38 lamp, can operate for 1,500 hours. The product is very energy efficient—and so is the factory.

Senior Plant Manager Tom Billups says, “The skill set we want out of the new hires coming in is that we want them to think, not be robots. If it has a problem, then fix it; if there is no problem, find a way to make it work better.”

GE’s Lexington Lamp Human Resources Manager Tammy Price also looks for a certain attitude. “We’re looking for people who take a lot of pride in safety and can be part of a team. We want people who are innovative and creative, who can learn multiple jobs, and move up.”

The smart people pipeline
For the teens in the Class of 2013, the path to a good job in advanced manufacturing will likely require more than a high school diploma. One good option is a nearby campus of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) to learn the “how to” skills employers need.

KCTCS students combine hands-on craftsmanship lessons in realistic workplace situations with classroom studies to earn a certificate in welding, industrial maintenance, robotics, machine controls, tool and die making, or other fields. KCTCS leaders meet frequently with local and regional employers to develop coursework best suited to the kinds of jobs they need to fill and the kind of “smart people” they hope to hire.

The pipeline of qualified job candidates reaches back to middle school and elementary students. According to the final report of a recent KAM study, “The jobs of 2020 have yet to be invented, developed, or discovered.”

While Kentucky’s K-12 school districts focus on teaching students the basic facts and principles in four key subject areas (science, technology, engineering, math—STEM for short), students also need to see how mastering what’s in a textbook can be the first step toward a satisfying and challenging career in advanced manufacturing.

KAM’s members support two nationally known programs, “Project Lead The Way” and “Dream It. Do It.” Adapted to suit Kentucky classrooms, these exciting and fun hands-on programs help connect chalkboard concepts to real-world problem solving. The idea is to develop a steady stream of qualified job applicants with the technical “know how” and the “can do” attitude to build an increasingly energy-efficient future, for the growth of the state’s economy in the years to come.


“In the last four decades, we have seen manufacturing jobs go from about 80 percent muscle power to 80 percent brain and high-skill power. Today’s careers are built on basic skills of reading, writing, communicating, and mathematics, and often require computer skills and specific technical skills. The jobs that left this country and will never return were the ‘brawn jobs,’ those that involved physically manipulating pieces of products. The ones today that manufacturers are having a very hard time filling are the ‘brain and skills based’ jobs.”
—Dr. G. Edward Hughes, president and CEO, Gateway Community and Technical College, which operates a high-tech Center for Advanced Manufacturing in Boone County, Kentucky

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