CADILLAC — Baker College’s MAT2 program has become indispensable for factories looking for a certain type of highly sought-after worker.
Entering its fourth year, the Michigan Advanced Technician Training program’s first cohort of students — who enrolled in 2015 — is scheduled to graduate in May.
Back in 2015, 10 industrial facilities in the area agreed to pool their resources in order to fund the program, which provides students a free education in “mechatronics” — a career field related to high-level maintenance of sophisticated robotic and automated systems.
Every year since then, a new class has been inducted into the program.
Those who are accepted in this five-year program work toward an associate degree and journeyman card while also receiving significant on-the-job training and exposure, in addition to a small stipend.
Avon Automotive, Avon Protection, Borg Warner, Cadillac Casting Inc., FIAMM Technologies Inc., Rec Boat Holdings LLC, and Rexair Inc. were among the companies that participated in the first year of the program.
When students graduate, they are required to work full-time at least two years at their sponsoring company before they are able to move on to a different job, if they so choose.
Baker College of Cadillac Associate Director of Business Development Mark Lagerwey said mechatronics positions are hard for industries to fill because they require an employee with general knowledge of almost every working system in the factory.
They are analogous to a general practitioner physician, but instead of expertise in the workings of the body, they have knowledge of technology and automation systems.
Typically, Lagerwey said factories have five to 10 mechatronics experts for every 100 employees.
Lagerwey said the MAT2 program was created by Gov. Rick Snyder following a trip he made to Germany, where he witnessed this apprenticeship model being implemented to great effect.
MAT2 began alongside similar programs in information technology, computer-aided design and computer numerical control.
While the other programs have been discontinued due to lack of interest, MAT2 has thrived.
Lagerwey said this is because mechatronics is such a broad skill set and need for these types of employees is “ubiquitous” in industry, as record numbers of Baby Boomers retire and technology continues to progress.
“This is a problem that is just getting started,” Lagerwey said. “There’s just not enough people gaining these skill sets. MAT2 is the type of programming that is helping to solve the problem. It’s a great time to enter the workforce but you just can’t sit back and do nothing.”
Caleb Thompson, 30, is one of the students who will be graduating in May.
In 2015, Thompson lived in Texas, where he was attending college after serving in the Air Force.
As a youth, Thompson said he was always interested in computers and technology, so he knew he wanted to get into the field.
When he heard about the MAT2 program, he decided to enroll and was accepted. He moved to Michigan, living first with his grandmother and then rooming with a fellow student.
Thompson said the mechatronics training was very foundational and opened his eyes to many future possibilities.
“You can pretty much do everything, so you can figure out what you’re interested in,” Thompson said. “It was a really good stepping stone. You get paid to go to school, so it’s very unique.”
MAT2 Program Director Josh Fenner said one of the things he’s noticed about the students who go through the program is that they naturally become leaders, given the fact they have a working knowledge of the entire factory.
“Eventually, these are the people who are going to become plant managers,” Fenner said.
Even as entry-level employees, the pay is very good: around $20 an hour.