When Siemens AG decided to focus the manufacturing of state-of-the-technology combined-cycle natural gas turbines in Charlotte, North Carolina, it encountered difficulty securing the needed technicians and skilled machinists and welders. It moved quickly to fill the gap with a relatively unique combination of initiatives to identify, recruit, educate and train the personnel who could help make the facility a go-to source for these increasingly important power generation systems.
Siemens Energy partnered with Charlotte’s Apprenticeship 2000, Central Piedmont Community College and later the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to supply the personnel Siemens could begin to count on by focusing on “mechatronics.”
Mechatronics is an emerging multidisciplinary field coined by engineering thought leaders in Germany – Siemens’ home country – that integrates engineering coursework. Originally, mechatronics focused mostly on mechanics and electronics, hence the combination of mechanics and electronics. As technical systems have become more complex the word has been broadened to include more technical areas, and now often includes software development.
During an interview last month at the CERAWeek energy conference in Houston, Siemens U.S. CEO Eric Spiegel said, “We needed to interview close to 2,000 individuals just to fill a few positions for year-long training.”
That wasn’t going to cut it. And the outlook for fielding a sufficient workforce was bleak. Spiegel said the shortfall is understandable because schools withdrew these programs (back in the 1990s): there were virtually no jobs for students to pursue. “U.S. companies simply stopped training in a lot of these areas,” Spiegel said.
To meet its near-term needs, Siemens created a year-long training program in Orlando for hundreds of workers who had the requisite computer, engineering, software and math skills. But the long-term challenge of recruiting enough qualified workers remained.
“If you take a look at the demographics,” Spiegel said, “whether you’re talking about the oil and gas industry, the power sector or manufacturing in general, over the next 10 years the people with deep experience in these industries are going to be retiring.”
To make up for that and develop a long-term solution, Siemens decided to start from scratch. It asked how state leaders could help out and promised to pick up the tab.
“We set up an apprentice program where we’re now hiring young people out of high school to go to (Central Piedmont) Community College to be trained in mechatronics,” Spiegel said.
Siemens US Head of Talent Acquisition, Mike Brown said for Siemens, mechatronics is particularly effective today with the proliferation of software-based solutions.
“Some of the components we make required a blend of mechanical, electrical, IT and propulsion disciplines . . . It represents what is real today for workers and for Siemens. We’re starting to see more companies and educational institutions embracing it,” Brown said. “Even the larger engineering schools are starting to look at blending their disciplines.”
In addition to training future employees, Central Piedmont Community College also partnered with Siemens’ Technik Academy in Berlin to train seven of their teachers on a Mechatronics curriciulm. These seven individuals became experts in implementing a Mechtronics curriculum, Brown said.
Today, the frist 18 participants in the program are working at the plant. “They go to class part time, they work in a plant part-time,” Spiegel said. “We pay them while they work. After 3 and ½ years, (they’ll) have a degree in mechatronics, a Journeyman’s certificate from the state of North Carolina, an Associate’s Degree and they’ve been paid so they have no debt and . . . a real skill.”
At this point, all 1,500 employees at the plant have received some form of training. The company has hired about 400 into skilled manufacturing roles.
Going forward, Siemens plans on scaling up mechatronics offerings in other manufacturing locations throughout the U.S. Siemens’ commitment was spotlighted by President Obama during his 2012 State of the Union address. Watch the video clip here.
With the commitment Siemens was making to Charlotte and combined-cycle gas turbine technology, the companyforged an even bigger foundation, working with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. There, it developed a program to help build its energy production manufacturing capabilities at the University’s Engineering Product & Infrastructure Center, or EPIC.
“We chose to help the university, even in their engineering programs, to improve their understanding of what’s required at the engineering level for gas turbines,” Spiegel explained.
“The oil and gas industry and manufacturing generally in the U.S. have a bit of a branding problem in the United States,” Spiegel said. To fix that, Siemens is working to nurture in energy at the middle school level and not wait until college with hopes students will become interested.
“If you wait until high school and they don’t have the right STEM (for science, technology, engineering and math) skills they’re not going to be successful going to college,” he said.
“They say most kids start getting excited about a career in 3rd, 4th or 5th grade,” Spiegel said.”They may not know what career it is they want, but that’s when they start getting excited about topics and subjects.”