In a strategic move to adapt to the economic challenges of COVID-19 while providing greater reach and more flexible programming, the University of Pittsburgh’s Manufacturing Assistance Center (MAC) will expand its program to Pitt’s Titusville campus in Crawford County while launching a new hands-on partnership with Conturo Prototyping LLC in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood.
The restructuring extends the MAC’s career training and placement program to prospective students in Crawford and surrounding countries, and links with Conturo Prototyping to continue to provide the hands-on curriculum to students in Homewood. Remote learning will still be provided from the MAC’s current home location at 7800 Susquehanna St., and eventually extended to the Community Engagement Center (CEC) in Homewood and the Hill District CEC.
Additionally, the curriculum will be made more accessible for working students by front-loading the three-week computer-based sessions, followed by a three-week machine program. Since many of the MAC’s students are adult learners with different time constraints than traditional students, the shift to a 50-50 hybrid model and compressed curriculum will be more accessible.
“This restructuring is an exciting urban-rural partnership that will expand the reach of the University of Pittsburgh in a meaningful way,” said Catherine Koverola, Pitt-Titusville president. “We look forward to continuing to work with all of our hub partners to bring to fruition this innovative educational model, which will help to meet the education and workforce needs of our neighbors in the Titusville region.”
Bopaya Bidanda, co-founder of the MAC and department chair of industrial engineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, explained that COVID-19 required a reimagination of the MAC’s day-to-day operations by integrating virtual learning with the instruction of competitive manufacturing skills.
“There continues to be a pressing need for advanced manufacturing training both in the city and across Pennsylvania’s rural counties, especially those surrounding Pitt’s Titusville campus. By streamlining our delivery system, we can reach more students while operating more efficiently within our resource constraints,” Bidanda said. “COVID-19 created a financial hardship for our operating model and so pivoting to an online curriculum and a shorter, intensified hands-on component allows us to reformat the MAC, serve a greater population and more quickly get our graduates in front of employer demand.”
Bidanda added that the MAC will be another strong component for the Titusville Education and Training Hub and further support workforce training in Crawford and surrounding counties. The University in 2018 began its transition of the Titusville campus to a community-focused resource with a combination of traditional college courses and vocational training, with both academic and corporate partners.
The MAC’s new partnership with Conturo Prototyping, according to company founder and Swanson School alumnus John Conturo (ENGR ’15), helps to solve three obstacles: maintaining the MAC’s presence in Homewood, providing accessible training for communities east of the city and addressing the “skills gap” in the machining and manufacturing industries.
“Over the past few decades there has been a sharp decrease in the number of individuals pursuing trades rather than a traditional four-year degree, especially in manufacturing. Because of this, the skills gap is making it difficult to keep up with demand for precision parts and machining services. If the workforce to address that demand doesn't exist, we need to create it,” Conturo said.
Indeed, Conturo and his company were planning on developing their own advanced training facility and curriculum until he learned that a partnership with the MAC would address public, private and community needs. “I’ve employed a handful of MAC students, so I know the quality of student that comes out of the program. By creating this partnership with the MAC, I can expand to a new facility in Homewood to accommodate more full-time staff and resources; absorb the classes currently offered; provide more advanced resources for hands-on training in a state-of-the-art facility and provide a stronger, successful resource for Homewood and surrounding communities.”
Lina Dostilio, associate vice chancellor for community engagement, noted that Pitt’s Community Engagement Centers (CECs) will be an important resource that was unavailable when the MAC relocated to Homewood from Harmar Township in 2018.
“The CECs will lift some of the burden from the MAC’s operational structure,” she said. “We can help to market the MAC to prospective students, especially in the city’s underserved neighborhoods, and will include virtual programming through our CEC in the Hill’s Digital Inclusion Center. The delivery of the online interface, any proctoring or office hours and educational support will still be led by the MAC.”
Bidanda noted that most student costs are absorbed through external funding, including grants, workforce redevelopment funds, trade adjustment and the GI Bill. The MAC’s placement rate for graduates is a healthy 95%.
James R. Martin II, U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering at Pitt, emphasized that this new model maintains the MAC’s mission and Pitt’s commitment to the communities it serves while addressing employer demand for workforce manufacturing skills.
“The strength of a major university like Pitt is its ability to see beyond traditional academics and research to support the people who live in its communities and to provide lifelong learning skills,” Martin said. “Engineering in particular, which throughout history has helped people develop tools and new learning that then advance society, is the perfect conduit for connecting people with the knowledge they need to advance their own lives.
“The disruption caused by COVID-19 has forced academia and industry alike to regroup and develop new programs that address the needs of the communities we serve. I am incredibly proud of how the MAC, Dr. Koverola, the CECs and John have come together to develop what I think will be a stronger program than when we started. This is a win-win all around.”