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The Importance of Hands-on Learning

The 2018 Deloitte/MAPI survey shows that the United States will be short 2.3 million skilled workers by 2028. But what do they mean by skilled workers? We know that in the last 40 years, automation and outsourcing have eliminated most of the low and semi-skilled jobs, so what is needed are jobs requiring a significant investment in training. A good example is the need for maintenance technicians.

There are more kinesthetic learners in manufacturing than we may think, and they are often overlooked in choosing training courses.

There has been a tremendous investment in automation in most American manufacturing plants, which has caused a simultaneous need for maintenance workers who can maintain, troubleshoot, repair, and operate the equipment. Maintenance technicians are expected to have:

  • A good understanding of hydraulic and pneumatic systems.
  • Knowledge of electrical and electronic components; i.e. photocells, switches, variable speed drives, touch screens
  • Knowledge of Rockwell software
  • Knowledge of PLC and industrial computer programs
  • Proficiency in electrical wiring of machines
  • Knowledge of conveyors, robots, palletizers and other packaging equipment
  • Math, print reading, and electrical schematics

They are also expected to:

  • Troubleshoot and program PLCs and industrial computers
  • Troubleshoot electrical and mechanical components
  • Weld, grind, drill, and saw
  • Assemble, tear down and reassemble automated systems

But to become a skilled maintenance technician who can operate, repair, maintain, and program an automated production line takes two years of mechatronics training and another two years of “hands-on” training to demonstrate mastery of all the skills listed above.

The Type of Training Needed

It looks like the whole issue of training the skilled workers we need in manufacturing rests on the question of how much training and how many skills. A 2019 MAPI study found that well over a third of manufacturers are building relationships with local academic institutions (including high schools, community colleges, and universities); another quarter are adopting Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other forms of online education; and 20% are developing internal training courses to increase new-technology skills training of skilled workers. This statement shows that the focus is on online and classroom training rather than hands-on training in the shop.

 The Growth of Online Training

If you look on the internet under manufacturing training, you will find a large number of online or classroom courses. Marketing materials for one online training company claim their courses will “help boost the manufacturer’s productivity, decrease employee turnover and possibly solve the talent gap” and “research suggests that online learning has been shown to increase retention of information, and take less time.”

Online courses may be less expensive than bringing an instructor on site and take less time, but are they adequate to create the highly skilled workers needed? Some of the promotional messages on the internet make it sound like online and classroom training are all you need for all skilled jobs.

Learning Styles

I have always been interested in learning styles and how people learn. If you read the literature on this subject, there is a lot of academic research on everything from neuro-linguistic programming to basic cognitive skills

I worked many years in the automation field (palletizers and robot systems). It was very technical, and we had to train engineers, machinists, fabricators, assembly technicians, and field servicemen. These were all very high-skilled employees, and training and education were a big challenge. In the development of training programs for our employees, it became obvious that classroom training alone seldom worked for everybody, and that people seemed to learn in a variety of different styles.

The learning model that described training in a way I could understand was the VARK Model developed by Neil Fleming. This model is simple and describes four kinds of learning styles – visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinesthetic.

The visual learners were those people who could learn with pictures like slides, diagrams, charts, photos etc. Auditory learners are very good at listening and do well with  classroom lectures, online presentations, recordings etc. Read/write learners prefer to read their information and write about it. Kinesthetic learners tend to learn by doing, touching, and active exploration. Most people use some combination of the four styles, which makes discovering their primary learning style difficult to assess.

In our company, I learned early on that classroom instruction was seldom adequate. In training our field servicemen, I noticed that we simply lost their attention during a long lecture. They were very dependent on visuals in the training, but to make the concept penetrate their frontal cortex, they had to go to a machine in the shop and do “hands-on” learning. They were kinesthetic learners, and once they touched the machine, the concept was imprinted in their brains permanently. I learned that learning by doing was by far the most important factor in all of our training, including training of engineers. I want to make the point that there are more kinesthetic learners in manufacturing than we may think and they are often overlooked in choosing training courses.

Manufacturing needs machinists, tool and die workers, mold makers, maintenance technicians, assemblers, and other advanced craftsman who are excellent at working with their hands. I am not overlooking the fact that classroom learning is important for understanding the math, science, reading, writing and foundation skills required, but hands-on learning is the most important part of the training for the highly technical jobs.

Penn United Training

One of the best examples of comprehensive training is the apprenticeship program at Penn United Technologies of Cabot, Pennsylvania. Their Learning Institute for the Growth of High Technology (L.I.G.H.T.) is a 17,000 square foot manufacturing training center located on company’s in Western Pennsylvania. The institute has classrooms and labs equipped with state-of-the-art manufacturing machinery and equipment to provide customized manufacturing training for both external and internal students.

They offer state-approved apprenticeship programs including:

  • Toolmaker – 4 year
  • Precision Machinist – 4 years
  • Press Technician – 3 years
  • Quality Assurance Technician – 3 years
  • Plating Technician – 3 years
  • Machine Operator – 1 year

To become a journeyman machinist takes four years and 8,000 hours of training. The apprentices are hired as full-time employees and paid a prevailing wage rate with full benefits.

John Duncan, an instructor in the LIGHT program, estimates that 90% of the training is hands-on demonstrations of mastering a skill and 10% is in the classroom or online. John stresses that in the comprehensive apprentice program “hands-on learning is absolutely important” and apprentices must demonstrate mastery of 28 primary skills to become journeymen. At the end of the four-year period, the apprentice is awarded a journeyman certificate by the state. They currently have 83 apprentices in training and have had as many as 110 in the past.

Four-year apprentice programs may be on the extreme end of a training investment, but they create workers who have a wide range of skills and who can do almost any job in a plant. They are master craftsmen; a single journeyman can do all of the jobs that a dozen specialists can do who are trained in short-term training programs. They are the versatile generalists whom manufacturing needs to solve the projected skilled worker shortage.

Apprentice-type training with a large number of hours devoted to hands-on learning is needed to produce the highly skilled workers needed in machining, tool and die, assembly, fabrication, maintenance and field service jobs. But most American corporations don’t invest in journeyman-type training because it takes thousands of hours of “hands-on” training and the worker gets a certification from the state that allows them to get a job anywhere in industry. They instead try to get by with short-term training based primarily on classroom and online learning.

In the beginning of this article, I described the kind of skills needed to be a maintenance technician who can handle complex material handling and packaging systems. The foundation skills needed to do this are offered in 2-year mechatronics programs – often at community colleges. But to acquire all of the skills necessary to handle all of the troubleshooting, operation and repair of complex automated production lines requires an additional one to two years of “hands-on” skills training in the shop or field. The foundation mechatronics courses are important, but the real learning to do the job comes from hands-on training where the student demonstrates mastery of each skill.

The 2018 Delloitte/MAPI study shows that American manufacturing is desperate for highly skilled workers, but they are not being trained fast enough to fill current needs. The short-term approach simply isn’t going to work if the goal is to create the highly skilled workers needed in the highly automated plants we have today. It is time to focus on the type of training that leads to the mastery of many skills—and the most effective way is learning by doing.

Michael Collins is the author of Saving American Manufacturing and can be reached at


The Importance of Hands-on Learning | IndustryWeek



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