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Educate for the Trades

EP Editorial Staff | June 1, 2021

Exposing high school students to real-world skilled-trades experiences, using UE Systems Inc., ultrasound technology, will go a long way toward developing the skilled workers needed today and in the future.

By Dr. Klaus M. Blache, Univ. of Tennessee Reliability and Maintainability Center (RMC) and Dr. Paul Kirkland, Grants Management, Monroe County Schools, TN

Q: When should you start recruiting skilled trades/technicians?

A: Many parents today are focused on sending their children to college as a measure of success. I’m all for a university education if your career aspirations demand it. However, not all young adults are interested in sitting in an office. Instead, they would rather do something with their hands. These students will get more gratification and be capable of earning a good salary with minimal investments in tuition. It’s a rarity when a high school counselor discusses a trade as an option. In the next decades, the skilled trade shortage will only get worse.

Mike Rowe, TV host best known for the Discovery Channel series “Dirty Jobs,” once fought back against plumber misconceptions. “If you see a plumber on TV, he’s going to be 300 pounds with a giant butt crack.” But when describing the plumbers he knew, “They’re actually pretty fit, and pretty smart, and most of them are making six figures a year.” [Top 15 Highest Paying Trade Jobs in 2021 (theinterviewguys.com)].

In 2021, elevator mechanics make a median annual salary of $84,990. Aircraft mechanics and boilermakers average more than $63,000. How many people do you know who are working in a service industry, unrelated to their college degree, because they couldn’t find a job. Meanwhile, industries across the country are desperately looking for trades and technicians.

As more tradespeople retire, these jobs will only be more in demand. For the remainder of this article, Dr. Kirkland (who worked on his doctorate while employed by the Univ. of Tennessee RMC) will share what’s happening in Tennessee relevant to this issue.

Career and Technical Education (CTE) is a vital component of the U.S. educational system. CTE programs provide students with academic, technical, and employability skills that are needed to maintain a job, in the present and in the future. The industrial landscape in America is at the onset of a paradigm shift regarding physical-asset management. With the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), change is rapidly occurring. Students must be equipped with increased knowledge of important Reliability Centered Maintenance practices. This includes the use of condition-monitoring tools and sensors such as airborne and structure-borne ultrasound.

In Monroe County Schools (MCS), Tennessee, CTE students were provided a unique opportunity to explore technology, maintenance, and reliability concepts that are not typically taught in traditional high school CTE programs. The students had the opportunity to take UE Systems Inc.’s (Elmsford, NY, uesystems.com) online courses. The courses included Lubrication Best Practices and Functions, Mechanical Inspection and Lubrication, Electrical Inspection, Steam Trap Inspection, and Compressed Air Leak Survey. The courses are designed for students of all skill levels and teach the basics of using ultrasound technology for specific industrial applications. The online courses consist of videos, slides, and text with quizzes. This project was supported by the East Tennessee Foundation’s John D. Grubb and Louise G. Sumner Fund for Monroe County. 

The overarching project goal is to provide teachers and students with the materials and equipment to understand the basics of maintenance and reliability best practices by providing the necessary inspection instruments and training. Implementation of the project started in Fall 2019 when UE Systems’ Manager of U.S. Operations, Adrian Messer, gave a presentation on compressed air, leak detection, steam traps, data collection, and various applications of ultrasound in an industrial setting to Sequoyah High School (SQHS) students. 

The duration of the grant has three main phases. During phase one, UE Systems provides teachers with online modules to give them a framework on the basics of ultrasound theory and its various applications. The modules provide teachers with the baseline knowledge to help train students to delve deeper into the content, maximizing the training opportunity for teacher and student. During phases two and three, students enrolled in Maintenance and Light Repair; Megatronics; or Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics (STEM) courses have the opportunity to participate in the project.

Currently, in phase two, UE Systems’ Messer gave a presentation on compressed air and leak detection applications using ultrasound in an industrial setting to SQHS and Tellico Plains High School (TPHS) students. An additional purpose of the presentation was to help train the students to use their Leak Survey app to create leak reports. 

Students were able to showcase these newly acquired skills at Carlex Glass America LLC (Nashville, TN, carlex.com) in March of this year. The students used UE System’s Ultrasound detection technology and the LeakSurvey app to create a compressed-air leak survey report.

In a subsequent trip, SQHS and TPHS students experienced a day at Carlex Glass America as reliability engineers and technicians. Adrian Messer and Kim Kallstrom, Assistant Director of the Reliability and Maintainability Center at the Univ. of Tennessee, Knoxville, accompanied the group to help students understand the importance of reliability and maintainability in an industrial setting. This opportunity provided students with a unique experience in the world of today’s technically advanced reliability and maintenance fields. Students were introduced to real-world engineering concepts while using teamwork, communication skills, and leadership abilities. David Windsor, electrical engineer at the company said, “hands-on experience is invaluable to high school students and having applicable Career Technical Education is vital in meeting the manufacturing and engineering needs of Monroe County.” 

At the conclusion of the field trip, Carlex was emailed an air-leak survey report generated by the students. The report comes at a time when reducing costs has never been more important. Many manufacturing companies have concerns regarding production slowdowns, supplier shortages, and challenges to reduce energy consumption dictated by ISO14001. The students were able to gain practical experience in a manufacturing environment and experience career opportunities close to home.

According to Kallstrom, “The knowledge and experience gained through this unique partnership with UE Systems will give the students a distinct advantage as they look toward college or a career in industry. Employers are investing heavily to train personnel on the benefits and use of predictive technologies such as ultrasound. To have a new hire, fresh out of school, that has this expertise would be a huge benefit.”

With an eye on the future, MCS district leadership and local employers are working diligently to provide students with as many opportunities as possible to gain the skills needed to address the growing labor shortage in their community. EP

Dr. Paul Kirkland is a native of East Tennessee and joined Monroe County Schools in 2020 as a member of the Grants Management Department. He previously worked in education for 17 years in roles including mathematics teacher, research coordinator (UT-RMC), and an adjunct professor.   

Based in Knoxville, Klaus M. Blache is director of the Reliability & Maintainability Center at the Univ. of Tennessee, and a research professor in the College of Engineering. Contact him at kblache@utk.edu.

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