National News

Toyota teaches practical skills to future technicians

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-11-28 11:00

Emily Houston was a good student. Everyone told her she should go to college, so she did. 

“I followed,” Houston says, “I didn’t really ask about any other options.” 

When she got to the University of Kentucky, she didn’t know what she wanted to study. “I just felt like, I have to get a four-year degree. I have to get a Bachelor’s,” she says. She had no idea what she was going to do after finishing her degree, and it was hard to get guidance. Her advisor never seemed to have much time. 

So, at the end of her sophomore year, uncertain where the pursuit of a Bachelor’s degree was taking her, Houston dropped out. But unlike a lot of people who quit college and don’t have a plan, Houston knew exactly what she was going to do instead. She enrolled in something called the Advanced Manufacturing Technician (AMT) program. 

The AMT program is a partnership between Toyota Motor Manufacturing and Bluegrass Community and Technical College. Students finish with a Bluegrass associate’s degree, but they never have to set foot on the college campus. All classes are held at Toyota’s manufacturing plant in Georgetown, Kentucky. 

Shortage of skilled workers 

At the Toyota plant in Georgetown, cars start as huge balls of steel. Twenty hours later, they’re driven off the line — a new car every 54 seconds. 

One of the reasons Toyota is able to make cars so quickly is that robots do a lot of the work. But robots break down. Finding technicians who can fix them is a challenge. 

“We can’t just go out and throw up some ads and hire some skilled people. They’re not out there,” says Toyota’s Dennis Dio Parker, who helped create the AMT program. 

This isn’t just a problem for Toyota. In a 2011 survey, 74 percent of executives at U.S. manufacturing companies said a shortage of skilled production workers was having a significant impact on their ability to expand operations or improve productivity. 

Toyota’s solution is the AMT program. And it’s not just designed to turn out graduates ready to work at Toyota, 15 manufacturers partner on the program. They’re all in it to get skilled workers. 

“It’s tough to convince young people there are good careers in manufacturing,” says Terry McMichael, a supervisor at 3M, one of the companies that partners with Toyota on the AMT program. They picture factories as “deep, dark, dungeon-type environments,” he says. But modern factories are clean and bright, says McMichael, and the pay is better than you might think. 

The starting wage for advanced manufacturing technicians in this part of Kentucky is about $80,000 a year with overtime. That’s more than the median starting salary for graduates of the highest-earning Bachelor's degree programs in the U.S. 

The Advanced Manufacturing Center 

Students in the AMT program take most of their classes in a 12,000 square foot classroom built by Toyota to emulate a modern manufacturing facility. Signs hanging from the ceilings mark off areas where students learn things like “Machine Repair,” “Fluid Power” and “Motors and Controls.” 

On a Wednesday morning in March, student Dalton Ballard is in the Motors and Controls area, working on the wiring for a switch that could activate a garage door opener. The lesson began with a short lecture from the instructor about how to wire the switch.  

But the learning really begins when the students try to wire the switch themselves. They each have a metal box with a power source and a bunch of blue wires. Ballard leans into the box, grabs a wire, glances up at the big white board in the corner full of diagrams and notes from the morning lecture, and then starts hooking up the switch. He says he prefers this way of learning. 

“I grew up on a farm so the way I’ve always been taught is with hands-on experience,” he says. “I really like it better if I get my hands in there, do it myself, rather then just sit there and read a book.” 

Ballard had a scholarship to get a Bachelor’s degree in music. But he wasn’t sure he’d be able to get a job with a music degree. 

“And if I took this program, there’s so many jobs,” he says. “And not only am I getting my schooling, I’m also getting paid for this. I’ll come out of this with no debt.” 

Most students in the AMT program get paid internships at one of the participating manufacturers. Wages vary. Toyota pays $12 an hour to start, and students earn raises based on their work performance and their grades in school. 

General education 

In addition to taking technical classes, students in the AMT program take general education classes like math, humanities, and public speaking. 

Ballard says at first he didn’t understand why he needed to learn public speaking skills. 

“But I really use them a lot when I’m over at the plant,” says Ballard, who interns at Toyota. “Rather than just ‘ah, that part moves and ah, that one extends a little bit.’ Now I can actually explain it.” 

Students in the AMT program don’t get to choose what classes they take. All the classes are laid out for them by Toyota. “We don’t change the college’s rules for general education,” says Parker. “But within the selections, we will go in and choose what we think is the strongest course to prepare them to be more effective in the work world.” 

Carol Crawford, who is the AMT program coordinator at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, says she has no problem with the fact that Toyota chooses all the classes. She thinks that helps students see a link between academic and work skills. “The general education classes I took [in college], I didn’t see any connection to what I was learning as far as business and organizational management,” she says. “I remember in one of my math classes, I asked the question, ‘How do I apply this to work?’ The instructor, he couldn’t tell me how to do that.” 

The AMT program seeks students who graduate in the upper half of their high school class and score at least a 23 on the ACT math test. But there aren’t enough applicants who fit the bill. 

“We are educationally challenged in the U.S.,” says Parker. “We’re not running with the best in Europe, we’re not running with the best in Asia. Our average is below their average.” 

The AMT program in Kentucky will accept applicants who score as low as 19 on the ACT math test. But anything less than that, and a student would need remedial classes. There’s no time for remediation, says Parker. 

“We’ve got every course selected in this program from day one to day end,” he says. “If they have to have remediation, they can’t start the program.” 

Wherever they’re willing to send me 

Emily Houston says she’s happy with her decision to quit the University of Kentucky and do the AMT program instead. She’s interning at 3M and expects to get a full-time job when she graduates this spring. At $80,000 a year, she’ll be making a lot more than most 22-year olds — especially in Georgetown, Kentucky. 

But Houston isn’t planning to stay in Kentucky for long. “With 3M being a global company, I could get on full time here and then transfer to another plant in California or in France, or wherever they’re willing and able to send me,” she says. 

Being able to travel was always one of Houston’s goals. She used to think getting a Bachelor’s degree would be the best way to do that. But it turns out knowing how to fix robots might be just as good.

A Jackie Chan movie just changed the solar industry

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-11-28 11:00

It turns out Jackie Chan movies are the key to the solar energy business. Sort of.

Researchers at Northwestern University used the material in a blu-ray disc of Chan's movie "Police Story 3: Supercop" to make solar panels that are 22 percent more efficient than regular ones.

You don't actually need a Jackie Chan movie. Any blu-ray disc will apparently work.

But it's still fun to pretend.

For Northern Ireland, Wounds From 'The Troubles' Are Still Raw

NPR News - Fri, 2014-11-28 10:30

Sixteen years after the much-heralded Good Friday Agreement between Protestant and Catholic forces in Northern Ireland, walls separating neighborhoods are a sign of how profoundly divided it remains.

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Attack On Mosque In Nigeria Kills Dozens

NPR News - Fri, 2014-11-28 09:33

Authorities believe the attack in the northern city of Kano was the work of Boko Haram militants, although the group did not immediately claim responsibility.

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Texas Man Killed After Firing At Government Buildings

NPR News - Fri, 2014-11-28 08:27

The gunman fired more than 100 rounds at a federal courthouse, a bank and the Mexican consulate before trying to set the consulate on fire. He died during a shootout with authorities.

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PODCAST: Is the U.S. in OPEC now?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-11-28 08:20

First up: OPEC said in no uncertain terms it won't scale back oil production. So oil prices keep dropping, and the U.S. is sort of an unwitting member of OPEC. We'll talk about what that means. Plus: If you're stuck in an airport this weekend, tweeting could get you the last seat on the next flight a lot faster than running to the counter. Finally, Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson joins us to talk about security on the upcoming Cyber Monday.

America's Black Friday Craziness Has Crossed The Pond

NPR News - Fri, 2014-11-28 07:46

The wild discount shopping that once was only a U.S. phenomenon has caught on in the U.K. and elsewhere, thanks largely to online retail giant Amazon.

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How to use social media as a last-minute travel agent

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-11-28 07:31

According to Brian Kelly, a  little travel tweeting could help you get home on time.  

“A lot of people just don’t know that social media can be such a great tool,” he says.

Kelly is a frequent-flier mile ninja and founder of the travel website The Points Guy. He says people can turn to Twitter to upgrade seating, find lost luggage or rebook flights.

“I know people don’t want to join Twitter and share everything, but you don’t even need to be an active tweeter to get help on Twitter,” he says.

When Kelly was traveling from Philadelphia to Costa Rica last New Year’s Eve, the American Airlines flight had a mechanical delay and he re-booked via Twitter while still in his seat.

“While passengers were running off the plane to get re-accommodated,” he says. “I was able to snag the last seat on the next flight and save a day of my vacation.”

These days, most U.S. airlines have teams dedicated to helping customers via social media.

“It’s critical for travelers to take advantage of social media,” Kelly says. “No app is going to do the work for you.”

Scott Sorenson works in Southwest’s “Listening Center” in Dallas Love Field airport. Along with a team of “social care specialists” he spends his day responding to customers who reach out on Twitter and Facebook.

The most common questions, he says, are about delays.

“So, hey my flight is delayed leaving this city am I going to make a connection in my next my next city?”

Sorenson can reach out directly to dispatchers and often get back via direct message to the customer. Sometimes in a matter of minutes.

So, if you’re looking for a fast response, Sorenson and Kelly say, start by looking up the Twitter handle for your airline.

Here are a few top U.S. airlines' Twitter handles to get you started:

Video Of Woman Dancing On Tehran's Subway Goes Viral

NPR News - Fri, 2014-11-28 06:23

The video was posted to a Facebook page called My Stealthy Freedom showing Iranian women defying the country's strict laws on female dress.

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Quiz: Prepping for college in middle school

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-11-28 05:20

Research by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research suggests how kids performance in early grades shapes their paths to college.

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Experts Predict Low Oil Prices Through Next Year

NPR News - Fri, 2014-11-28 05:07

Following a decision by OPEC ministers not to cut production, crude prices have fallen to a four-year-low before rebounding slightly.

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Eyeing That BB Gun For Christmas? Don't Go There, Doctors Say

NPR News - Fri, 2014-11-28 05:03

Sure as the season, some toys that turn up on the most-popular lists are also considered a safety hazard. So best to skip the LED crossbow, eye doctors say.

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Silicon Tally: Mr. Roboto

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-11-28 03:19

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Ryan Calo, a robotics expert and assistant law professor at the University of Washington.

<a href="//">View Survey</a>

Test Your Medical Smarts: Does This Patient Have Ebola?

NPR News - Fri, 2014-11-28 03:03

Patient X arrives. She ran a fever. Now it's gone. But she has diarrhea. Should you test for the virus or not? That's the kind of case history presented to health workers heading to West Africa.

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Talking (Very Frankly) About Sex On Campus

NPR News - Fri, 2014-11-28 03:03

Sex Week events are designed to foster an open, healthy discussion about sex.

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Connecting your online self to your offline self

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-11-28 02:30

Retailers have long tracked when we visit and what we purchased in stores. Then, they came up with ways to monitor what we did on their websites. Now, they're using mobile devices to connect that offline and online activity into data-rich customer profiles. 

Monica Ho heads marketing at xAd. It has a map of America that shows real people visiting stores in real-time. On it, each individual person is a blinking yellow light. At ten o'clock in the morning, the map is lit up like a Christmas tree. In two minutes, you can watch over a million people shop.

XAd creates this map with GPS data transmitted by the apps on people's phones. The company buys most of the data from free apps that sell user information to make some revenue. XAd uses the data to help retailers tell if an ad they sent to your mobile phone actually led you into a store, an important metric to track offline conversions that begin with online advertising.

Matt DePratter is a VP of digital marketing at Catapult. He says if we use a retailer's app, that company knows even more about you-like where you are in a store, what you browsed online, if you bought anything, or if you looked up an item on a competitor's website. That can help stores target you with products, discounts, and personally-tailored commnication.

Depratter says companies like Walmart and Target are trying to get people to use their apps, even in stores. He says Target "actually has little signs directing you to interact with your mobile device in some sort of way." The company offers customers a coupon if they send it a text, thereby initiating contact between the store and the person's phone.

Connecting to your mobile phone is key to integrating your offline and online data, which, in the end, will help retailers sell you more stuff.

Viral Videos Show Kenyan Women Assaulted For Wearing Miniskirts

NPR News - Fri, 2014-11-28 01:07

Nearly every day for the past two weeks, a woman in Kenya has been publicly stripped and molested for wearing a miniskirt. Cell phone video has galvanized an unprecedented show of condemnation.

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How Dogs Understand What We Say

NPR News - Fri, 2014-11-28 00:06

Dogs pay close attention to the emotion in our voices, but what about the meaning of words? A clever experiment with 250 canines shows that dogs understand more of our speech than previously thought.

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Pentagon Expected To Release More Detainees From Guantanamo

NPR News - Fri, 2014-11-28 00:04

Since the midterm elections, there has been a new batch of transfers from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and more releases are in the works. But a new GOP Congress could stall the drive to empty Guantanamo.

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Gold-Plated Gowns And 8-inch Pumps: The Stuff That Made Starlets Shimmer

NPR News - Fri, 2014-11-28 00:00

Actress Mae West was petite, but on screen — thanks to a pair of platform shoes — she looked larger than life. A show in Boston examines the fashion and jewelry of Hollywood's golden age.

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