I, Robot Doctor: Two students in the Kentucky-FAME training program learn the art of advanced manufacturing. Credit: Courtesy of WorkingNation

For more than a decade, economists, business leaders, and progressive writers and thinkers have waged a wonky war over the so-called skills gap—specifically, whether such a gap exists at all.

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Employers, for their part, argue that the skills gap is real, and complain that it makes it tough to find qualified workers. Many progressives, however, say these gaps are a myth, the product of businesses’ own failings. They charge employers with inflating the credentials required of applicants and skimping on worker training.

Research shows that the progressives have a point: Many companies are indeed guilty of “degree inflation,” demanding college degrees for jobs that don’t need them. Companies have also reduced investment in worker training over the past 20 years, forcing employees to seek more training themselves at community and for-profit colleges, often going into debt to pay for it. According to a recent report from the Aspen Institute, less than one-fifth of workers have access to employer-sponsored or on-the-job training, and they tend to be the highest paid and already the best educated. 

But employers are right, too. Many entry-level workers today are missing a crucial set of skills that most high schools and colleges don’t teach: the so-called soft skills that are increasingly important for success in the modern workplace. These include basic workplace-survival behaviors like showing up every day and on time, and knowing how to talk to your boss and colleagues. They also include higher-order skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration. While more K–12 schools have begun teaching critical thinking and analytical skills under the rubric of “social-emotional learning,” it’s hardly part of the standard curriculum, nor is the pedagogy established about how to teach it well. As a consequence, most students don’t learn in their classrooms what life is like on the job—and it shows.

Employers, says a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation report, are “coping with new hires who are unsure of how to write a professional email, struggle to organize and prioritize tasks, or have a difficult time collaborating with coworkers.” A survey of more than 1,000 hiring managers by the Society for Human Resource Management yielded a similar finding: About one-third cited a lack of soft skills among candidates as the reason they had trouble filling positions. 

One promising program has the potential to end the deadlock over the skills gap, satisfying employers while addressing the skeptics’ critique that companies skimp on training. Developed by the Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (FAME), this small-but-growing two-year apprenticeship-style program trains students to maintain and repair the machinery that now does most of the rote work of manufacturing. It has a unique curricular focus: As much as two-thirds of students’ time is spent on soft-skills development, while just one-third is devoted to technical training. The result is that graduates have excellent professional and collaborative skills, fulfilling employers’ needs. But it’s also successful enough to draw the kind of financial investment from companies that workers deserve. First launched at a single Toyota factory in 2010, it has already grown to involve more than 350 manufacturers in 13 states, from large refrigerator makers to smaller plastics plants. Of the roughly 850 students who have graduated so far, 85 percent have been hired by their sponsoring employers with starting salaries at $50,000 or more. And because the students don’t pay for their training, they can graduate debt free. 

While few issues these days draw bipartisan consensus, politicians as diverse as Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and even Donald Trump agree on the need for more high-quality career and technical education opportunities in general, and apprenticeships in particular. FAME could be the kind of program to drive that consensus into action, for the benefit of both employers and workers. 

Dennis Dio Parker, the founder of FAME, has grappled for decades with skills shortages, ever since his employer, Toyota, launched a factory in Georgetown, Kentucky, in 1987. Now employing 10,000 workers, it’s the largest Toyota plant in the world, but when it first opened, the factory had trouble finding enough qualified workers. “We needed workers qualified in skilled maintenance—maintaining the conveyor lines, the power to the buildings, the robots, the table lifters,” said Parker, whose job was to develop in-house training programs for Toyota. These workers also needed the problem-solving skills to figure out why a machine might be broken and how to fix it. In addition, they needed to be able to communicate and work closely with the engineering department and with each other. Unfortunately, Parker said, “not many people were passing the assessment tests.” 

As Parker tinkered with new training curricula over the years, he interviewed dozens of supervisors about the skills their exceptional workers possessed and saw some common themes. “Technically, they’re highly competent, but they’re also great attenders,” Parker said. “We never worry about them missing. They have great initiative.” These workers also had great communications and people skills. Parker set out to train workers to perform like those exceptional employees. The program he ultimately developed was effective enough to draw the interest of other companies, whom he organized into a collaborative to disseminate the model. That collaborative became the Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education, launched in 2010, and its signature program for technicians has since come to be known as FAME.

From week one, FAME makes clear that it’s not a traditional college program where students can get away with playing hooky or sit slouched in the back of class. At orientation, students receive a collared uniform shirt, which they’re expected to wear to class every day. This insistence on a uniform is actually part of the program’s soft-skills curriculum. “If you look professional, you’ll start to feel professional,” Parker said. Students also learn the program’s expectations about attendance—which is not to be on time, but to be early. Outside each classroom are attendance sheets with students’ names and a daily log of arrival times. Students are marked in green if they are 20 to 30 minutes early to class, while on-time arrivals are marked in yellow and tardies of even one minute past the start time are in pink or red. A single red mark is enough to warrant a warning; three tardies means dismissal from the program. The emphasis on attendance underscores how the world of work contrasts with that of school, Parker said. “Colleges do a terrible job of preparing their students for the rigor and discipline of being a good attender at work. You can have a student with a 4.0 [GPA] who misses classes from time to time, and from the college’s perspective, their attendance is perfect. But they’re still going to get fired in a heartbeat on the job.” 

At the start of the program, students are introduced to the FAME’s signature pedagogical prop: laminated “pocket cards,” sized to fit in the pocket of a work shirt, that serve as crib sheets for core concepts. The first week of class, students receive two cards focused on “safety culture” and three cards on “professional behaviors.” As the program continues, they accumulate more cards, on communication skills, problem solving, “visual workplace organization,” and other skills specific to their future jobs as advanced manufacturing technicians (AMTs). They’re expected to memorize and be able to recite each card on command, and, ultimately, to apply the content in a real-life situation. 

Each card includes a checklist of required behaviors or core concepts, in simple, direct language. The “AMT professional greeting” card, for example, lays out seven steps for how students are expected to greet each other. Step 1 is the “professional posture” (described on a separate card), followed by Step 2: “Greet the other person with a strong voice. Look in the eye.” The sequence ends with Step 7: “Tell them you are pleased to meet them and/or offer to help.” 

Companies have reduced investment in worker training over the past 20 years, forcing employees to seek more training themselves at community and for-profit colleges, often going into debt to pay for it.

While these instructions might seem basic, they are often eye-openers for the 18- to 20-year-olds who make up the target demographic of the program, Parker said. “They have no context or life experience,” he told me. The program also drills students in public speaking. In FAME instructor Chris Lagemann’s classroom, for instance, at the State Technical College of Missouri, each class begins with a student delivering a presentation on shop floor safety, which the class critiques based on the checklists of do’s and don’ts spelled out on the pocket cards that define expectations for presentations. “They get evaluated on their posture and appearance,” Lagemann said. “Did they stand up straight, and were their hands in front? Were they fidgeting or standing still? Did they introduce themselves?” Lagemann keeps track of how many “um”s, “you know”s, and “like”s the presenter uses. Students run through this exercise twice a day, every day. “It’s a lot of repetition,” Lagemann said, but its purpose is to inculcate the skills laid out on the cards to a point of automaticity.

Unlike many other training programs, where students spend several weeks or even months in the classroom before an internship, FAME students spend three days each week on the shop floor immediately applying what they learned. Lagemann says he sends a weekly report to the employers sponsoring his students alerting them to that week’s lessons. “If there’s something in the plant that coincides or matches that discussion, they’ll try to have a job or assignment to practice those skills,” he said. “Likewise, if there’s something going on at the plant—if there’s a new installation or a shutdown of a particular piece of equipment—the manufacturers let us know that so we can cover that topic or have a 20-minute discussion of what’s going on.”

This close partnership between employers and FAME is a big reason why the program’s placement rates are so high. The sponsoring employers “match” with students at the start of the program and pay them a minimum of $14 an hour—enough to pay for tuition and living expenses. Instructors like Lagemann do their best to tailor the curriculum to employers’ specific needs, while a liaison at the company often serves as the student’s mentor, assigning work and communicating with instructors. “They’re taking on quite a bit of responsibility from an employer standpoint,” Lagemann said. “They’ve agreed to pay this kid 14-plus dollars an hour for two years; they’re going to train them, keep an eye on them, and assess them and hold them to the standards we expect.” But, he continued, employers “do get a two-year look to decide whether to give them a full-time job.” So far, the employers partnering with the program have decided that this level of investment is worth it—as have the students.

Before entering FAME, Glenn Dodge had attended one semester of college, with the goal of getting a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. “I learned very quickly that it wasn’t the right fit,” he said. “I overburdened myself.” At age 19, he dropped out, bringing home thousands of dollars in school debt—but not the degree he’d been after. His stepmother, a guidance counselor at a local high school, pointed him toward FAME. In 2017, he enrolled in the program’s Missouri chapter. 

Among other things, Dodge credits the program with transforming him from a “slightly shy” person into a confident public speaker serious about his work. “I stuttered a lot,” said Dodge, now 21. “I would throw in ‘uh’s and ‘um’s. I wouldn’t give a professional greeting. I would just start talking.” The program drastically improved his public speaking. “I learned to make eye contact rather than just read off a slide. I made sure people could hear me,” he said. Dodge’s sponsoring employer was a plastics manufacturer, where he had a mentor named Jason Cartwright. “He would bring me up into his office every now and then and just draw with Expo marker on his window to explain something,” Dodge said. “He made sure I understood what I was learning and could apply it.”

By the end of the program, Dodge was an excellent prospect for employers. After graduating in May 2019, he fielded four interview requests in one week, two of which turned into offers on the spot. He accepted a job working the third shift as a maintenance technician at Toyota Bodine, where his starting salary was $50,000 a year. He says he’ll have the loans from his aborted college career paid off in under five years. “I don’t understand why people still believe that they need a four-year degree to be a success,” he said. “AMT and the manufacturing field is where the lucrative money is at.” 

One testament to FAME’s success is its ability to propel the careers of workers who, in other circumstances, might have far more trouble climbing the ranks. Camryn Vrbka, who enrolled in Missouri FAME’s inaugural cohort in 2015, is the rare woman in a relatively male-dominated field. “I liked engineering, and I liked solving problems, but I also found out I don’t do calculus for fun,” she said, by way of explaining why she didn’t enroll in a traditional college. She credits the FAME program with not only opening the door to a well-paid career but also boosting her up the ladder more quickly than she otherwise could have gone. She, like Dodge, has a job at Toyota Bodine, where she maintains and repairs machines that inject thousands of pounds of molten aluminum at high pressures into molds for engine parts. These machines, Vrbka said, are about two stories high and take about nine months to master. Yet Vrbka has already been promoted twice and, at just 21 years old, now holds the position of group leader, a job that typically requires 10 years of experience. “The next-youngest person at my level is at least five years older than me,” she says. Vrbka is also getting that four-year degree after all. She’s building on the associate’s degree she earned through FAME to get a bachelor’s in business administration, with tuition assistance from Toyota and FAME, in a recently added perk to the program. “She can go as far as she wants,” Nane Lawson, Toyota Bodine’s hiring manager and the advisory chair of Missouri FAME, told me. 

While FAME’s target demographic is recent high school graduates, it has shown that it also can benefit older workers who want to “upskill” or “reskill” from different careers, such as ShuJuanna Johnson, a FAME trainee in Arkansas. Johnson, now 45, dropped out of high school when she became pregnant with her daughter. Although she eventually earned her GED, she found herself trapped in relatively unskilled work, including 15 years at a cleaning company pressing and folding shirts. “My primary job was to make sure the shirts were starched, make sure there were no spots or wrinkles,” she said. “It wasn’t taking me to the place in life where I wanted to be. It wasn’t a career. It was just a job, and I didn’t want to be living paycheck to paycheck.”

Johnson heard about FAME from counselors at a local community college, decided to apply, and was accepted. “I never had any experience with professional behaviors. I never even really thought about it,” she said. She credits the program with preparing her for a new work environment, as well as improving her time management and communication skills. Today, she is apprenticing at a Georgia-Pacific facility in Crossett, Arkansas, where she is learning to maintain and repair the machinery that manufactures tissues, paper towels, and other products. “It has really inspired me to do things that I never thought I could do,” she said. 

So if FAME’s approach is so effective, why aren’t there already many more programs just like it? 

One reason is that demand for soft skills from employers is relatively new. Another is that, although more schools are beginning to realize the importance of non-cognitive skills, teaching them isn’t yet a core part of most students’ formal education. K–12 and higher education still focus on academic achievement and technical knowledge, to the particular disadvantage of workers without four-year college degrees or lower-income backgrounds. 

But even as more educators recognize the importance of soft skills, there’s still a final problem: how to define it and teach it. Definitional and pedagogical challenges abound. What exactly, for instance, is “leadership,” and how is it measured, let alone taught? While teaching and testing technical skills is relatively straightforward—a welding student, for example, either performs a sound weld or doesn’t—judging that same welder’s work habits and ability to get along with colleagues and superiors is much more nebulous and subjective. What FAME has managed to do is transform the squishy concept of soft skills into clear, practicable expectations for behavior and offer students plenty of opportunities for practice, assessment, and feedback.

While there has not yet been a formal evaluation of FAME, one indicator of its potential is the eagerness of employers to invest in the program. In the spring of 2020, more than 350 manufacturers were sponsoring trainees across a variety of sectors. In Missouri, the home of Glenn Dodge and Camryn Vrbka, participating employers include, in addition to Toyota Bodine, the leading commercial refrigerator maker True Manufacturing (“If you’ve ever gone to Walmart and gotten a soda out of the coolers, that’s a True refrigerator,” Lagemann, the FAME instructor, said); plastic-bottle manufacturer Alpha Packaging; and local concerns such as Component Bar Products, which creates custom machined parts for automotive and other industries; and C.A.P.S. Inc., a company that specializes in making plastic bottle caps for mustard and ketchup bottles and other food products. While the coronavirus pandemic has caused delays in some states for the 2020–21 FAME cohort, founder Dennis Dio Parker said employer interest has remained surprisingly stable, even despite the recession, and the program is working to adapt its format for the new realities of the post-pandemic world. If anything, Parker said, the pandemic could potentially prompt a renaissance of manufacturing in the United States as a result of supply-chain disruptions around the world. Such “in-shoring,” he said, could even prompt more interest from employers wanting workers trained to fill their needs. 

Programs like FAME hold important lessons for the future of workforce training. First, training programs need to make the teaching of soft skills a priority, and FAME shows one way that can be done. Second, the success of the program’s apprenticeship-style format also reinforces the value of work-based learning, which deserves far greater attention and investment. Research has found that the career-focused programs producing the best results (as measured by higher wages, for example, and more consistent employment) are those that include work-based learning opportunities. FAME is a potentially powerful addition to that repertoire of programs, particularly for its ability to draw investment from employers and for its formalized soft-skills training. Its model is replicable in sectors beyond manufacturing, too. In fact, the Manufacturing Institute, which now runs the program, is already looking for other high-demand fields where a FAME-like program can be developed and launched. As the demand for soft skills continues to grow, innovative efforts like FAME will be increasingly important for ensuring that American industries and workers have what they need to compete in a global economy.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection. Follow Anne on Twitter @Anne_S_Kim.