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Leveraging Adult Learning Techniques for Manufacturing Training

Updated: May 3

By Ranae Stewart, Senior Executive Director, Purdue MEP. This article first appeared on IndustryWeek.

When the manufacturing leaders on the Purdue Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) board of advisors were asked to help develop a curriculum for a general certificate in manufacturing skills, they had a couple of non-negotiables. The adult learning sessions had to be in person to maximize engagement, and they had to emphasize hands-on skills and competency while minimizing the academic aspect to remove the possible anxiety around “going back to school.”

The stakeholders aimed to make the curriculum less intimidating. They established an 8th-grade reading comprehension standard as opposed to a high-school degree equivalency. They understood that while many creators, builders, and mechanically minded individuals are adept at problem-solving and learning hands-on skills, they may shy away from curriculum-heavy approaches used in more abstract, academic fields. So, a curriculum was developed to leverage adult learning methods to build manufacturing skills without necessarily requiring extensive academic qualifications.

The result was the Manufacturing Skills for Success (MS4S) program, a 10-day boot camp for entry level workers to prepare them for a career in manufacturing. MS4S was designed to reach two groups:

  • Non-incumbent workers: Unserved and underserved populations, such as “second chance” citizens (which refers to people who have finished their time in prison and who are ready to return to the workforce), underemployed, unemployed, and disabled

  • Incumbent workers: People ready for a career change from non-manufacturing sectors, and the onboarding of entry level hires

The MS4S program has resonated with second chance citizens after being successfully replicated inside correctional facilities across Indiana and Tennessee. The program has been licensed to other states and organizations, and it has equipped nearly 2,000 people with the hands-on skills they need to fill essential positions in manufacturing when they are released from a correctional facility.

The Purdue MEP has expanded upon the MS4S program to include in-house training for incumbent workers. The boot camp approach has been successful in upskilling workers, building niche skills, training new front-line managers, and developing leaders.

Adult Learning Boot Camp Maximizes Training in Minimal Time

Focused adult learning methods, combined with portability and flexibility, make the boot camp format the secret sauce for maximizing training in a minimal amount of time.  MS4S was developed as an alternative to the traditional adult training models associated with two-year degrees or even 16-week vocational programs. An ideal cohort is 12-15 participants, with 80 hours of training in a 10-day period. However, the organization has learned to be as flexible as possible, such as a condensed day of class to accommodate participants’ transportation and childcare needs.

In addition to correctional facilities, the MS4S program has been conducted in adult learning centers, re-entry facilities, parole districts, YMCAs and YWCAs, rehabilitation facilities, manufacturing facilities, and even restaurants with meeting spaces. It has attracted a wide range of participants, from high school and charter school students to Baby Boomers.

The portability aspect means participants are not trained on machines. They are trained on the basics of what to expect in a shop. Employers tend to train new employees on how to use their unique equipment. Purdue MEP’s MS4S course has a different kit for each day – such as the measurement for manufacturing kit that includes blocks and a variety of measurement tools, such as gauge blocks, micrometers, calipers, and rulers.

Curriculum: Keep the Focus on Competency, Hands-On Learning 

In the program’s curriculum, each day is dedicated to a topic, with hands-on activities built into classroom time. Instead of requiring participants to pass a written test at the end of the day to ensure they acquire the skills they need to apply for entry-level manufacturing jobs, they are evaluated on competency and comprehension.

Here’s the breakdown of the curriculum:

  • Workplace Skills: Covers expectations for full-time work and how to be a valued employee. It also covers soft skills, such as how to work effectively with others.

  • Print Reading for Manufacturing: Includes reading and interpreting engineering prints used in manufacturing.

  • Measurement for Manufacturing: Participants use a variety of measurement tools commonly found in manufacturing environments, including calipers, gauge blocks, and comparators.

  • Quality Tools and Techniques: Covers the basics of what quality management is, why it is important, and the tools organizations use to monitor and improve process quality.

  • Problem-Solving and Root Cause Analysis: Students learn how to implement the Plan-Do-Check-Act problem-solving method to solve a simulated problem in a manufacturing environment.

  • 5S System: Teaches 5S system concepts and how to apply them to transform a cluttered, disorganized production area into a clean, orderly, and efficient workplace.

  • Math for Manufacturing: Students learn or review basic math skills used in a manufacturing environment.

  • Principles of Lean Manufacturing: Covers the basics of lean manufacturing and how it can improve a manufacturing operation through a fast-paced, hands-on simulation.

  • OSHA 10-Hour General Industry Safety: Students learn how to stay safe at work in a manufacturing environment and obtain an OSHA 10-Hour General Industry card.

  • Effective Communication and Critical Thinking: Develops skills needed to clearly and effectively send and receive messages. Students learn and practice critical thinking skills through situations related to the workplace.

Leverage Adult Learning Throughout Your Organization

Due to the success of MS4S, the Purdue MEP team has expanded the Skills for Success model of adult learning into four other development programs for manufacturers to use internally. The menu for incumbent employee training now includes:

  • Customer Service Skills for Success

  • Leadership Skills for Success for Frontline Leaders

  • Leadership Skills for Success for Managers

  • Skills for Success – Quality Technician

The Frontline Leader and Managers classes meet for a full day every three weeks, for a total of nine sessions over six months. Each participant is required to select a project to complete in the workplace with assistance from course instructors. Participants are given homework related to their project to complete between sessions. These classes follow the adult learning models, which focus on real-world applications as opposed to theory and academic approaches.

Your Local MEP Center Can Help You Develop New and Current Employees

Experts at your local MEP Center can help you with your workforce development needs. Contact your local MEP Center to learn more about workforce development programs in your area or custom training programs to leverage adult learning methods in your organization.

Ranae is the Senior Executive Director of the Purdue Manufacturing Extension Partnership, part of the MEP National Network™. She handles the development and management of Purdue MEP's partnerships, as well as outreach efforts to engage and educate organizations throughout the state on the mission of MEP. She oversees the Center's workforce development initiatives, including the launch of the MS4S program, which has trained nearly 2,000 individuals since 2018.

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