Manufacturing Institute Sees Demand for Reskilled Workers as US Manufacturers Bring Jobs Home

eKentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute (eKAMI) students, including displaced coal miners, find jobs during school closure; eKAMI’s focus on reskilling workers extends to staff, who leverage 3D printers to build and donate masks for frontline healthcare workers

During its 8-week shutdown resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, two students enrolled in the eKentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute (eKAMI) secured CNC machining jobs with leading manufacturers, with other companies calling the school with plans to hire new graduates in the coming weeks. Director Kathy Walker sees this interest as an indication that US manufacturing will see a resurgence, with recent surveys showing nearly two-thirds of manufacturers in North American plan to hire domestically instead of sending jobs overseas.

“There remains a strong demand for high-skilled positions in advanced manufacturing, particularly in automation and robotics,” said Walker, who founded the eKAMI Haas Center along with the Gene Haas organization in 2017 to reskill displaced coal miners and other workers to build the quality workforce needed to attract manufacturing jobs to the region. Students are trained for high-tech positions in CNC machining on the latest, state-of-the-art Haas equipment in 16- and 36-week immersive courses. eKAMI graduates have been hired by companies such as AutoGuide Mobile Robots, Heartland Automation, Roush Yates Engines, Lockheed Martin and Catepillar’s Progress Rail.

“The Covid-19 situation revealed serious deficiencies in our domestic supply chain,” Walker said. “As a result, we are already seeing signs of a resurgence in US manufacturing, as an increasing number of manufacturers prepare to reshore jobs.  Unfortunately, the skills gap remains for higher-level trades, driving the urgent need for automation. Our goal is to respond to industry demand by providing our workforce with the necessary tools to meet that challenge.

Keeping Busy During the Pandemic: Printing and Donating 3D Masks

eKAMI practices what it teaches in terms of responding to market needs with advanced manufacturing techniques. When the school first closed its doors to students in mid-March, staff members suggested putting their advanced manufacturing skills—and the 3D printers—to work. After designing face shields themselves, they have made and donated thousands to rural frontline medical facilities, including hospitals, nursing homes, fire departments, police departments and even correctional facilities, funded in partnership with Pop’s Chevrolet and Citizens Bank of Kentucky. According to Walker, the demand hasn’t waned, so they will continue making and donating the shields, even with their students now back in the classroom.

“Our staff teaches students how to adapt to rapidly changing environments utilizing innovation to solve manufacturing needs,” Walker said. “Using technology skills, but quickly switching gears to mass produce on the 3D printers to create much-needed masks, is one example our students can follow as they return to class to complete their certifications before heading out into the workforce.”

Healthcare facilities in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, benefited from eKAMI’s innovations. “eKAMI stepped up, responded to an urgent need, and fulfilled it beyond anyone’s expectations,” said Mayor Les Stapleton. “They rapidly transitioned from producing precision parts to producing medical face shields. When the shortage of quality shields was noted, within days they were producing PPE to be used by our region’s front line EMS and Healthcare workers.”

Highlands Appalachian Regional Healthcare Medical Center in Prestonburg was one of the first recipients. “ARH is proud to have a community partner like eKAMI to support our system,” said Tim Hatfield, Community Chief Executive Officer. “Over the past several weeks, eKAMI has worked to produce 1,750 face shields for our front-line staff. We are truly blessed with Kathy Walker, her team, and her vision of training local folks to meet an industry demand.”

“I am so thankful to eKAMI for the design and production of face shields,” said Dr. Andy Keaton, of Keaton Orthodontics in Pikeville, Kentucky. “I could not obtain face shields through any of the national dental suppliers. The quality of the face shields was consistent with any I might have purchased from a national supply company.” 

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