What's a mechatronics technician?

June 21, 2007
When Keith Campbell muses about industrial education, his thoughts go back to his uncle Ralph.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

When Keith Campbell muses about industrial education, his thoughts go back to his uncle Ralph. After graduating first in his high-school class, Ralph got a job as a machinist. He spent a long and satisfying career working in factories with no regrets.

The question that bugs Campbell is this: What if his valedictorian uncle had graduated high school today? "Ralph probably have gone to a four-year college and, if he was lucky, eventually run a McDonald's," Campbell shrugs.

That's not just an idle reflection. Campbell is the director of Pennsylvania's Industrial Maintenance Training Center. The IMTC is a cooperative effort between industry and government. As Campbell tells it, IMTC came about because manufacturers in the area couldn't find qualified applicants to fill maintenance-technician jobs. So they helped devise a two-year educational program to help fill the gap.

Indications are that the idea is a hit. IMTC officials had hoped 50 people would enroll in the first program. Instead, 125 applied.

Critics of the American educational system probably wouldn't be surprised by this popularity. They blame the No Child Left Behind program for implicitly assuming that every student should follow an academic track. Vocational training in high schools has never been particularly good. But the No Child program has further diminished opportunities for high-school students interested in acquiring useful industrial skills.

"Today we send people to college who aren't as smart as my uncle Ralph was," says Campbell. In his eyes, that's a mistake and a waste of talent. "We've lost track of how much smarts it takes to do some of the jobs you find in factories."

For proof, consider the course work in IMTC's industrial-maintenance curriculum. It includes the four areas today considered branches of mechatronics: servo-controls and control theory, mechanical drives, information technology, and electronics. "Firms with advanced manufacturing equipment are seeing a need for this kind of multi-skilled individual. There are too many technologies involved to employ specialists in each of them," explains Campbell.

But despite the high-tech flavor of the work, the IMTC figures there's an image problem with factory jobs and particularly with industrial maintenance. "Maintenance technician," and even "mechatronics technician," sounds decidedly dead-end and just not sexy enough to grab the interest of high schoolers.

"When we designed a degree program, we felt the term "engineering" had to be there if we were going to get parents' attention," Campbell explains. "I've talked to people all over the world about an appropriate title for the kind of individual we have in mind. I've yet to find a word in any language that describes the position."

Despite the image problem, IMTC and institutions like it in other parts of the country are starting to get attention from manufacturers. It's high time. "People in the U.S. are insulated. They don't understand that we aren't keeping up with other countries on training for advanced manufacturing," says Campbell. Though it has a reputation as a low-wage area, "Even Mexico is teaching students advanced industrial skills."

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