Volunteer State Community College: Students Tell Machines What to Do With Mechatronics

Eric Melcher
Member Spotlight

Employment analysts say that manufacturing jobs are at risk because of automation. Robots have become the new employees on the line. A research paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (2017) studied the impact of industrial robots in labor markets in the United States. The results show that robots caused up to 670,000 lost manufacturing jobs from 1990 to 2007. A Ball State University study (2017) shows that nearly nine in ten jobs lost since 2000 disappeared due to automation.

There is one way to stay ahead of technology: be the person who tells the robots and machines what to do. The field is called mechatronics. Volunteer State Community College (Vol State) in Gallatin, Tennessee, has added a mechatronics degree program to meet the need of local companies. Mechatronics is the blending of engineering fields including mechanical, controls, and electronic and computer engineering to automate manufacturing, distribution, and complex services through multiple industries. Electromechanical technicians are the experts who repair, maintain, and design state-of-the-art robotics and computer-aided equipment in today’s fastest growing industries. The Vol State program is taught for people with a high school degree or those with another college degree who want in-demand job skills.

Mechatronics students Heather Roberts, Joseph Hurt and Charles Little (standing)
study a hydraulics assembly during a Vol State class.

“Students with a natural curiosity and who enjoy working with their hands will do well in mechatronics,” said Tim Dean, Department Chair of Mechatronics at Vol State. “Folks with mechanical aptitude do well, but it’s not a requirement. As we go through the process of training, students can acquire the mechanical aptitude.”

There is plenty of technical equipment used in the program to give students hands-on experience in automation, hydraulics, machine controls, and robotics. Students in the Cookeville Mechatronics program say it provides a great base for a new job or a promotion at a current workplace.

“Right now, I’m a lab tech,” said student Joana Rhodifer, who works at Tutco Heating Solutions in Cookeville, Tennessee. “With this program I can do engineering jobs, like designing our heaters. Having a degree will increase my opportunity to get a better position at work.”

“I love the fact that this class is very hands-on,” said student Charles Little. “It turns into more of a conversation than a lecture in the classroom. It’s very animated and there is a lot of feedback.”

“I like being able to work with my hands,” said student Joseph Hurt. “I can learn more by being able to do it, rather than just learning in the classroom. I’m hoping that I can invent new things one day. My dream job would be to work for myself.”

“When I see people understand something, and I see the lightbulb go on over their head, that makes my day,” said adjunct faculty member Ed Tacke. Tacke is an example of the skilled engineers who are attracted to mechatronics teaching positions. He works as an electrical engineer in Crossville, Tennessee, but he also has a passion for teaching. “I just love technically complicated things. I want to teach young people important jobs that the country needs.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2017), positions for electromechanical technicians have a 2016 national median salary of $55,610. The Vol State program will feature work-based learning opportunities designed to get students plugged into the many companies that need mechatronics professionals.

“Having the connection with industry gives students an idea of what will be expected when they get a job,” said Dean. It can also lead directly to jobs for students who fit in well with a company.

Vol State offers a two-year Associate of Applied Science degree in mechatronics. Each step of the degree program also prepares students to test for Siemens Certifications. Siemens Certifications are internationally-recognized mechatronics industry designations. They are important to employers. Being Siemens certified gives Vol State graduates a real advantage in the field.

Classes began in Gallatin this fall in a new mechatronics lab. However, the program will grow even more with a new, expanded facility as part of a renovation project for the Warf Math and Science building on the Gallatin campus. The program received a jump start from the state of Tennessee with a Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP) 2.0 grant. It’s designed to support technical training with input from area employers. The Mechatronics-2-Jobs LEAP grant helped purchase equipment for the new mechatronics classes on the main campus in Gallatin and the Highland Crest Campus in Springfield. Mechatronics classes are also available from Vol State at the Cookeville Higher Education Campus (CHEC).

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Acemoglu, D., & Restrepo, P. (2017). Robots and jobs: Evidence from US labor markets. Working Paper No. 23285. Washington DC: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Hicks, M. J., & Devaraj, s. (2017). The myth and the reality of manufacturing in America. Muncie, IN: Ball State University. Retrieved from http://conexus.cberdata.org/files/MfgReality.pdf

Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2017). Electro-mechanical technicians. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/electro-mechanical-technicians.htm

Lead image: Vol State students learn about the robotics station at the mechatronics lab in Cookeville, Tennessee.

Eric Melcher is Coordinator of Communications and Public Relations at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tennessee.

Opinions expressed in Member Spotlight are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.