Lucrative new manufacturing jobs are emerging; no college degree required

By: Deborah Horne

Updated:

This looks for all the world like an-old fashioned manufacturing plant humming along in Redmond.

And they are producing what they have for more than half a century, small construction lifts that bear the company name, Genie.

"We take in raw steel," said Genie CEO Matt Fearon. "We bend it. We paint it. We cut it. We put it together and make these kind of machines."

Fearon and KIRO 7 rode up in one of the lifts to talk.

"Until about a week ago I thought manufacturing in America was done," Fearon was told. "Is it?" 

"No," he said. "Absolutely not." 

Absolutely not, he says, because technology is helping lift Genie and other manufacturers into the 21st century.

"It's kind of a merger of technology and the actual labor that needs to be done," he said.

University of Washington professor Dr. Pedro Domingos has written the book on how computers and robots are transforming the workplace.

"Manufacturing actually is making a comeback in America," said Domingos. "Who would have thought?"

But even he didn't predict that technology would breathe new life into this old industry.

"Are there particular manufacturing jobs that are coming back?" he was asked.

"Yes," said Domingos.

"The manufacturing jobs that are coming back now, are not the same as the old. It's not just doing the same thing over and over and over again.

It's more like managing these robots and these systems."

And all of those systems have morphed into a brand-new job with a new name, to boot. It's called "mechatronics."

What is it?

This question was put to Jeff Purdy. 

He was teaching a machining class at Shoreline Community College.

"It involves knowing things about fluid power, welding, electronics, computers, machining," said Purdy.

Those who study manufacturing in the U.S. say 3 1/2 million of these new, higher paying mechatronics jobs are going unfilled.

Locally, Boeing is feeling the pinch, too.

“We need more manufacturing people every day," said Michelle Burreson, Boeing's senior manager for workforce development. 

Burreson says to fill the void, the aerospace giant decided to partner with five Puget Sound Community Colleges, including Shoreline to create a mechatronics curriculum. 

"Developing local talent," Burreson said, "making sure that our technical colleges are really aligning their programs to support what our industry needs."

To offer the complete mechatronics curriculum, Shoreline is joining forces with the electronics program at the larger North Seattle College.

"This whole program addresses the subject of automated manufacturing," said Tim Fiegenbaum, North Seattle's mechatronics program coordinator.

"For many years our manufacturing has been moving to China, to Mexico, to India. And so we're beginning to see it coming back and part of the reason it's coming back is simply because we're able to automate processes and do them cheaper and better."

And these students are the beneficiaries. 

"Well this must seem like an exciting time for you?" Joshua Lang was asked.

"It is," said Lang, a stay-at-home dad for 10 years.

"And the aspect of this mechatronics program that really enticed me was having a more well-rounded focus on being able to do multiple disciplines to do something."

Ashley Hennessey is a single mom.

"I'm excited about how many jobs are going to probably be opening to me in the coming year," she said.

Jobs are already opening at Genie.

"You're actually hiring people?" CEO Matt Fearon was asked.

"Yeah, we are," said Fearon. "We're hiring about 20 to 25 people a week between here and Moses Lake.

Moreover, Genie will train anyone it hires. To be fair, Fearon concedes automation is causing some manufacturing jobs to disappear forever.

"But I don't think it's the end of manufacturing, you know," said Fearon. 

"If you walk around our factories and you look at the amount of work that's going on, there's still good meaningful jobs and meaningful careers in manufacturing."

Jobs are for the taking for those with the right skills and the right training.

Besides Shoreline and North Seattle Colleges, the other schools offering the mechatronics program are Everett, Renton colleges.

And South Seattle College has an introductory program.

How much does the 2-year-old program cost? It costs about $12,000 for the entire program.

But some mechatronics jobs start at $35 an hour. That's more than $72,000 a year.     
 

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