Technology investments have helped create an engaging learning environment in industrial labs, says Jon Hardbarger, Director of the College of Lake County Advanced Technology Center.

Feb 16 2023

Colleges Aim to Fill Workforce Needs With Technology Training Centers

College-based advanced technology centers offer students a direct path to manufacturing careers.

Innovation in education has always been near and dear to Jon Hardbarger’s heart. Now, however, it’s also near his office, and he can see it and hear it every day when he goes to work.

As director of the brand-new College of Lake County Advanced Technology Center in Gurnee, Ill., Hardbarger has a desk just off the building’s atrium, steps away from the front door.

“Innovative education has to create an environment that engages students,” he says. “They need to be able to see the relevance of what they’re learning and immediately apply it to the real world.”

At the ATC, Hardbarger notes, hands-on work defines the educational experience. The light-filled, 182,000-square-foot facility had previously housed a big-box store. Then, last August, it opened for the fall semester: a teaching and learning center designed to prepare students for cutting-edge jobs in the manufacturing industry.

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“We’re off and running,” Hardbarger says now. “Whoever decides to walk through those doors, they’re on their way to a great future.”

As a community college, CLC serves everyone, from high school students to local adults looking for new skills or continuing education. Many people in Lake County work in manufacturing, and the area is home to at least a dozen Fortune 500 companies. The ATC, Hardbarger says, was designed with extensive input from these businesses.

“The goal was to create an authentic manufacturing environment where we could teach technical skills and the critical thinking skills needed for tomorrow’s workforce,” he explains. “We’re here to serve everyone in the community — both students and the companies where they’ll build their careers.”


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To that end, the ATC currently consists of two primary educational programs. One is focused on industrial technology and teaching students to repair and maintain a wide variety of mechanical equipment, while the other covers welding and fabrication technology, including the use of robotic welding machines.

Both tracks feature sprawling laboratories where students learn everything from how to shape sheet metal to the basics of electrical systems and motor controls, and both programs include dedicated teaching stations where instructors supplement practical learning with short classes and presentations.

“The teacher might call people around and say, ‘I see a lot of you seem to be dealing with the same problem,’ and then he or she might show a video or give a demonstration on what the students can do better or differently,” Hardbarger explains.

In the welding lab, instructors also rely on cameras and large mobile displays that they can position wherever they want to make a point.

DIVE DEEPER: How partnerships can help community colleges achieve their technology goals.

“Maybe there’s a student in a welding booth, and the teacher wants people to look at the student’s technique,” he says. “You can’t put people in there while the student is welding, so instead you just have them watch on the screen.”

When he was in college, Hardbarger recalls, he had to be good at reading comprehension and sitting for hours, regurgitating abstract concepts. “That’s not innovative education,” he says. And that’s not how it works at the ATC.

“I think in here it’s a more equitable learning environment for everyone, regardless of how well you did in calculus or English composition. It’s not just reading a book or listening to lectures — every assignment is project-driven.”

Programs and Partnerships Help Colleges Prep for Industry 4.0

While the College of Lake County can claim to have one of the newest ATCs in the country, it’s among a growing number of community colleges that have invested in such facilities.

The impetus, according to Craig McAtee, CEO and executive director of the National Coalition of Advanced Technology Centers, is rooted in two related trends. The first involves a shortage in the manufacturing workforce, which Deloitte has estimated could reach more than 2 million unfilled jobs by 2030, while the second has to do with what manufacturers call the “fourth industrial revolution.”

“Because manufacturing is evolving so fast, with new technologies coming out all the time, companies are looking to these institutions to ensure the workforce is keeping up,” says McAtee. Industry 4.0, he explains, describes the emergent reliance within manufacturing on smart, connected technologies such as robotics, the Internet of Things and cloud computing.

“When we use the word advanced, that’s always changing,” McAtee notes. “Every week, there’s something new to add, especially in the world of technology and manufacturing.”

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The NCATC works with colleges in areas where manufacturing is critical to the economy to help them develop curricula and degree programs to entice students to pursue careers in the field. It provided technical assistance to CLC as it developed plans for its ATC, and it’s done the same for many others through its Creating Connections in Manufacturing Communities with Community Colleges program, which it runs in partnership with the American Association of Community Colleges.

One of those institutions is Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, where Ray Nejadfard is interim vice president of its Manufacturing Technology Center of Excellence. Between that facility and the nearby Tri-C Advanced Technology Training Center, the college’s students have access to nearly every technology deployed in modern manufacturing.

“These people aren’t going to fix your laptop, but they’ll definitely know how to connect the equipment on the shop floor or develop the automation to make it run,” Nejadfard says. Tri-C programs include specialized training in areas like precision machining, 3D printing and mechatronics engineering, and offer students everything from noncredit certificates to associate degrees.

Nejadfard says Tri-C has partnered with more than 30 companies in Northeast Ohio to ensure its manufacturing curriculum meets the community’s needs. “What we really want is for every student we develop to leave here fully prepared for a job in smart manufacturing.”

Source:, “Creating pathways for tomorrow’s workforce today,” May 4, 2021

Tennessee Advanced Technology Center Continually Evolves

Also aboard the smart-manufacturing train: Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn.

In 2015, the college opened an 18,000-square-foot industrial training center it dubbed the MegaLab. The facility, explains Todd Evans, Pellissippi State director of workforce solutions, was imagined as a space where students could make mistakes. “Where they could take technologies and practice again and again until they know how to use them correctly,” he says.

With mobile workstations supporting distinct training pathways in machining, mechanical engineering and industrial-electrical technologies, and two areas designated for computer-based cybersecurity training, the building typically hums with the sound of students focused on promising careers.

“Local companies were telling us, ‘The classroom is great, but we need more people with hands-on experience,’” Evans says. Manufacturing isn’t the biggest industry in Knoxville, which is why the MegaLab includes many different technologies, “but there’s enough of a base that the companies that are here really depend on our program.”

Click the link below to find out how this university is investing in its manufacturing community.

Like a lot of college-based advanced technology centers, Pellissippi State’s is a work in progress. It started evolving the day it opened, and it hasn’t stopped since.

“As an institution, we’re always trying to better meet the needs of our local market,” says MegaLab Director Andy Polnicki.

As data acquisition and analytics have become more important to manufacturers, for example, the college has worked to integrate its computer and cybersecurity programs into its electrical and mechanical programs. It has also recently started supporting several technician certification programs administered by the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council that are meant to prepare students for highly skilled work in IoT-intensive manufacturing environments.

“We’re probably not as high-tech as some of the other advanced manufacturing training centers, but that’s where we’re headed in the future,” Polnicki says. “We’re just listening to our community and following the local industry’s lead.”

Photo by Matthew Gilson

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