Ask a random person what an industrial maintenance technician does, and you’ll probably get a blank stare, or a job description that mentions a mop and a bucket. Even Sabrina Phelps, who’s in the business of vocational education, was stumped when she got a call three years ago from a Frito-Lay plant manager, asking whether the school offered any kind of maintenance tech training.
“We were like, ‘You want what?’” recalls Phelps, principal of Houston County Career Academy in central Georgia. “I had no idea what that was.”
She learned, fast. Frito-Lay’s largest plant is in Perry, Ga., a short drive from the career academy. It started out with two lines in 1988, but now, after several expansions, 300 million pounds of snacks are processed there each year—Doritos, Cheetos, Funyuns and more—on 15 production lines. The entire operation requires a round-the-clock crew of 100 industrial maintenance technicians to keep the machines running--and those jobs, which require a specialized two-year degree, are hard to fill.
Central Georgia Technical College offers an industrial maintenance degree, but that pipeline wasn’t enough. Craig Hoffman, the plant’s engineer, thought that reaching students earlier might muster more interest.
The Frito-Lay plant also needed more tailored training—to specific equipment and plant operations—than the technical college could provide, said Greg Roden, senior vice president of Frito-Lay’s North America supply chain.
Over three years, Roden and Hoffman worked with Phelps to develop a work-study program to introduce high school students to the industrial maintenance field. Students learn both at the school, on Frito-Lay equipment, and at the plant with industrial mechanics. For their efforts, they receive elective high school credits, as well as credits from the technical college for basic engineering and maintenance courses.
Once students complete the program, they can interview for Frito-Lay’s apprenticeship program, which provides on-the-job training and tuition-free coursework at the technical college to earn an associate’s degree. (Industrial maintenance is one of 12 high-demand technical programs for which the state of Georgia covers the tuition.)
The first class starts in the fall of 2017. In the meantime, Phelps and her colleagues are working to sign up 24 students, through open houses, class visits and a video about the program that teachers can show during non-instructional time.
At a recent open house, Frito-Lay apprentices shared their stories with prospective students and their parents. Phelps saw some eyes light up during the talks. But it’s still going to take some selling. “We’re thinking this first year class may be small,” but the course will grow with word of mouth, she suspects. “We’re trying to get the word out about what it is and what it isn’t.”