DETROIT—Three young men in the back of a classroom at Henry Ford College stare intently at a machine that helps move panels along a conveyor belt. To the untrained eye, there doesn’t appear to be much going on, at least initially.
But after several moments of careful inspection, the students exchange a few ideas, make a couple of swift adjustments to the machine, and earn a nod of approval from an instructor standing nearby. The group has correctly identified an issue with a sensor that the teacher intentionally created to test the students’ problem-solving prowess.
Such scenes are becoming increasingly common at community colleges and technical schools here and across the country. As more jobs become automated, companies are looking for employees who can essentially manage the machines doing the work. Where an employee used to be responsible for, say, feeding a panel onto a conveyor belt, now that employee is increasingly expected to work with coworkers to solve any problems that arise when the machine doing the job malfunctions. That requires good communication, critical-thinking, and time-management skills, and schools that used to focus strictly on technical instruction like welding now find themselves adapting curriculum to include more of these so-called “soft skills.”
The result, proponents hope, is a set of adaptable graduates with the ability to succeed across a range of industries—meaning a set of graduates who won’t be left without options when the next recession hits. That’s especially crucial here, in an area still struggling to rebound from the decline of the auto industry, and where educational attainment and salaries are lower, on average, than in the rest of the country. “I was sick of standing at a machine and doing the same thing all day,” said Brad Grappin, 30, one of the students at Henry Ford tasked with troubleshooting the problem with the machine.