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CEO Podcast: FAME students with Nathan Sprague of Washtenaw Community College

December 18, 2023 Podcasts

In this episode of the Ann Arbor SPARK’s CEO Podcast, host Paul Krutko discusses the Michigan Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (FAME) program at Washtenaw Community College. The program, initially created by Toyota, offers apprenticeship opportunities that blend hands-on experience with formal education leading to an associate degree in advanced manufacturing. Nathan Sprague, an instructional lab assistant, and several students share their insights on the program’s impact, including its rigorous training schedule, professional development, and real-world application of classroom knowledge. The discussion also covers the program’s uniqueness in fostering highly skilled technicians well-versed in lean manufacturing principles and the importance of industry partnerships in shaping the curriculum.


Paul Krutko: Welcome to Ann Arbor SPARK’s CEO Podcast, Conversations on Economic Opportunity. My name’s Paul Krutko, and I’m the president and CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK.

Today we’re continuing our exploration of the Michigan Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education, or FAME program, building on my previous discussion with Meg Wallace from Toyota. Toyota’s pivotal role in the FAME program at Washtenaw Community College involves a partnership in the Michigan Fame Mitten chapter, offering a work-and-learn apprenticeship program. The innovative program, originally created by Toyota, pairs students with companies like Toyota to provide hands-on experience and formal education leading to an associate degree in advanced manufacturing. This collaboration signifies Toyota’s commitment to nurturing talent and advancing the field of manufacturing education.

Today, I’m joined by Nathan Sprague, instructional lab assistant in the advanced manufacturing department at Washtenaw Community College, and several students participating in the FAME program, Andrew Denton, Jarel Reid, and Kevin Liskow.

So Nathan plays a pivotal role in shaping a global best workforce through the FAME program at Washtenaw Community College, emphasizing the critical importance of maintaining a culture of safety in the manufacturing environment.

So really, thank you to all of you for taking some time to explain this program, which we’re really proud to be a part of. So first, Nathan, I’m going to start with you. Can you briefly describe what the FAME program is and how WCC became involved in it?

Nathan Sprague: Yeah, absolutely. So the FAME program is a sort of apprenticeship program where students as a cohort are taking the same classes together at Washtenaw Community College, while also working alongside our industry partners. So on Mondays and Wednesdays, they attend classes and the remaining weekdays they spend with our employer partners.

Paul: Okay. So what distinguishes the FAME program from other advanced manufacturing training programs?

Nathan: It is very easy to tell apart our FAME technicians from our regular students, our FAME technicians are not only at class 20 to 30 minutes before class even starts, but they also have a professional dress code that they follow. They ask questions to better their understanding on course material. Their employment is also tied to their grades at school. So not only do they study hard, but they support each other in the classroom and the lab to ensure that they’re all keeping pace.

Paul: So it sounds like these students are very highly motivated.

Nathan: Oh, absolutely so. By the end of five semesters, they will have actually achieved over 1,800 hours in manufacturing experience in the workplace and in associate screen mechatronics as well. While attending classes, the students are additionally completing manufacturing core exercises, which consist of preventative maintenance schedules, problem-solving exercises, and safety-improving projects both at their school and at their work. Our FAME technicians practice interpersonal communication skills as well every single day to really hone those professional behaviors, too.

Paul: Well, how does the program collaborate with the industry partners to shape the curriculum and the student experience?

Nathan: Yeah, that is a great question. So we routinely meet up with our industry partners. Unfortunately, that’s not something I’m as much of a part of on the educational staff, but our admin staff do a great job of ensuring that we are not only meeting the needs of our students, but the needs of industry so that we’re preparing them for industry as much as possible.

Paul: Hey, well let’s hear from the students. Can each of you share an example of where your classroom training has been immediately applicable at work? And I got you all on the screen. So maybe we’ll start with Nathan. Oh wait. No, that’s wrong. We’ll start with Andrew.

Andrew Denton: Hey Paul, how’re you doing?

Paul: Good.

Andrew: So I would say I started noticing pretty much immediately from just looking at blueprints from machines that we’re building to looking at pneumatic diagrams. I’ve even done a panel wiring and in our ELE class we had to do a panel wiring and I was actually able to apply those skills to the job and able to get that done confidently. So yeah, I will definitely say that it helps being able to learn. I know I’ve always been a decent student in school, but sometimes you can kind of memorize things and it’s in your head until the test and then you do a good job on the test and it’s out. Having the work to go to, it’s just like, oh, you get to go into the workplace and actually see what you just learned. So it helps you to retain the information a lot. So that’s something that I value about the program.

Paul: That’s very cool. Jarel, what would you like to share?

Jarel Reid: Same as Andrew. I noticed almost immediately I’d learn something one day in class and then I’d see it in work the next day. It’s just like once for preparing for a test, we were learning about relays and I showed my boss the homework I was doing and he said, oh, I know something about this, and he showed me something. We went and fixed it and had it

involved the things we were learning in class the previous day.

Paul: Kevin, how about you?

Kevin Liskow: Oh yeah, definitely immediately, just different things with wiring mainly and electronics right away in fluid power. Right away I start to see the machines because it’s one thing to see ’em and see how they’re working and get trained on it, but it’s another thing to see how behind the scenes, the fluid power, how the electronic would be circuited. You can kind of see, look at the diagram in the real world, see what’s going on. So you’re definitely seeing it right away, a lot of stuff applied.

Paul: So all three of you, any one of you can chime in. What are your career aspirations in advanced manufacturing and how do you think the FAME program is helping you achieve them? Anyone of you or I can pick you all.

Paul: Go ahead, Jarel.

Jarel: For my career aspirations, I’d say I always wanted to go into more of an electrical engineering field, and I feel like the FAME program not only helps me figure out more of what I want to do, but it widens my avenue of more things. I like the electricity part of it, but I also know more about mechanical engineering and other things like that, which could help me in the future in deciding more of what I want to do.

Paul: So it gives you a broader exposure to what the opportunities are, you’d say. Right. Is that the case for you, Andrew?

Andrew: Yeah, for me, I’m not really sure. So I kind of got into this path because I wanted to be an electrician. Somehow it kind of ended me up into these electrical classes. I was flirting with the idea of getting into electrical engineering, but kind of seeing what engineers do on a day-to-day basis, I’m not sure if that’s going to be my path necessarily, but definitely something in manufacturing. Wherever I can find out I can help the most.

Paul: Kevin, how about you?

Kevin: Yeah, definitely. I’ve seen, right now I do testing. I really like seeing all the nooks and crannies. I’m not sure exactly yet what I want do, but I kind of want to have my own brand or machine shop or something to do with that, or just at least design stuff. So it’s definitely nice to see little detailed stuff with Toyota testing.

Paul: Cool. So you all come into the program from different places. What are some of the challenges each of you have faced during the program and how have you overcome them? So this time, let’s start off with Kevin first.

Kevin: Just the challenges. I guess just staying consistent and having a good timeframe with school and our work, because regular school work is terrible. It’s too many hours and not enough time to really study and stuff, but it’s nice with the FAME program, you have it nice and separate. You can go to school some days and study those days and then also go to work and see some of the stuff that you’re studying, which is nice.

Paul: Jarel, were there any particular challenges you had?

Jarel: I’d say my biggest challenge is just balancing working and doing the school at the same time. It can be a challenge some of the times, but I’d say just organizing my schedule and stuff, like writing things down, planning it on a calendar makes it easier.

Paul: Okay. Andrew, how about you?

Andrew: Yeah, I would say definitely the same as Jarel and Kevin. It’s a large workload. You’re going to school full-time, and then you’re also working anywhere from 24 to 30 hours a week. For me personally, I have a long commute. So there are days that I’m out of the house 13-14 hours a day. But like they said, we’re going through this together. We have a cohort and we have these dedicated days to go to school. So it definitely helps. And then sometimes the employer lets me do a little bit of homework there. But yeah, just like they said, staying organized and making sure that you’re on a schedule and you’re looking forward, so you always know what’s coming and then you’re not missing out on any assignments.

Paul: So I’m going to shift back to Nathan. So can you give me a sense of what role you’re playing in the program in both developing and implementing the curriculum?

Nathan: Yeah, of course. So I actually have the opportunity to serve two different roles for our advanced manufacturing technicians. Firstly, as a lab tech here at WCC, I assist with the instruction while the cohort is in lab for their classes. This enables me to better track their progress and relate their lab exercises to their work as well as the greater scope of manufacturing.

Secondly, I meet with the students every Monday and Wednesday morning as their FAME-certified instructor to aid in the completion of their manufacturing core exercises. In between semesters, I additionally prep a huge lecture that they all love so much that preps them for the next semester’s topic. So whether that be this semester was safety culture, next semester is going to be Five S organization. Then following with lean manufacturing, this enables them to really hit the ground running when that semester kicks off because they have projects that they’re going to be working out throughout that entire semester on that course material.

Paul: Well, it is very interesting that the FAME program and Washtenaw Community College have come into this partnership to develop this program because the ability to expose young people to what kind of careers are in advanced manufacturing is really critical. It seems to be something that WCC has really embraced. Can you talk a little bit about the college as a community college, and it’s role in terms of trying to bring forward this kind of program to the community?

Nathan: Absolutely. Yeah. The FAME program is unique in its ability to produce technicians that are well-versed in all aspects of lean manufacturing. Our AMTs are excellent communicators that are well-versed in professional behaviors that we stress almost every single day. We are constantly meeting in what we know as safety circles or safety discussions to kind of give everybody an opportunity to talk in front of our group and be just excellent communicators.

They differ greatly from the traditional student in that respect with their to effectively communicate ideas quickly and address problems immediately. FAME programs in other states have thoroughly proven that this system works, too, because their technicians continue to see opportunities for promotions due to their tenacity. With our students coming here a little over around 20 hours a week here on campus and then spending the rest of their weekdays at work, they are working very hard to make sure they’re keeping up on everything. So due to the behaviors established by the program, many go on to earn higher degrees and credentials as well.

Paul: Okay, very good. So for you, let’s turn it on its head a little bit. What advice would you give to employers about considering partnering with the FAME program?

Nathan: Okay. So I would say the FAME program establishes a steady stream of high-achieving and career-oriented technicians to all of our employer partners, and we work very closely with them to ensure that we are getting them exactly what they need, which in return ensures our students that we are perfectly preparing them for their jobs and their careers. It also enables our technicians to be leaders in industry and lean manufacturing principles for whatever they choose to do with their career.

Now is also the perfect time to reach out if you are an employer because we are looking for additional employer partners for next year. We’re going to need more employer partners in order to support more students so we can get more people through the program. So feel free to come into our lab and take a tour, but please be sure to make it a Monday or Wednesday so we can get you to sit down with some FAME students and talk about why they love the program so much.

Paul: Well, that’s fabulous, and I would encourage any employers that are listening that they should take a look at the program and reach out to you, and if they need some help reaching out to you, they can also contact us at Ann Arbor SPARK.

So I’m going to close out with the students. I’d just love to hear from them, each of them, about what advice they would give to other students who are considering joining the FAME program. So we’ll just go across here. I’ll start with Jarel. What kind of advice would you give to others about joining the program?

Jarel : The advice I have to give is to take advantage of the college’s opportunities and stuff they give you. Like, I’ve talked with the success coach and other counselors multiple times and they’ve helped me out when I’ve been in a tough position or something.

Paul: Like, so there’s an overall support system at WCC in addition to your work in the FAME program. That’s great. So how about you Kevin? What advice do you have?

Kevin: I would just say stay organized, and definitely with the FAME program, it’s pretty easy. They have a nice set schedule and just stay on top of stuff, and it’s just like normal college and yeah, I always ask for help for sure. There’s so many people that just have a great wealth of knowledge, especially at WCC, about anything from work to just how to pay for school or just different things or anything to do with the college experience.

Paul: Alright, we’re going to close with Andrew, how about you? What kind of advice do you have?

Andrew: I would say if you’re thinking about it, do it. Put your application in early and get in. It’s an awesome opportunity. There are very limited seats, but I would say especially my experience coming in a little bit later in life, it’s a great accelerator program. They got me a better-paying job immediately. I’m ready to go and now I’m going to be set up for the rest of my life just by doing a quick 18-month program.

Paul: Wow. That’s a great validation. Wow. Well, good for you and I appreciate the fact that that’s happened for you. That’s a great testament to the program.

Well, again, Nathan, Andrew, Jarel, and Kevin, thanks for taking some time to talk to me today and about the FAME program and your experiences with it. I really appreciate it.

I want to thank our audience for listening and learning more about those leaders and organizations working hard to create the Ann Arbor region’s economic future. These conversations are brought to you by Ann Arbor SPARK. For more information about Ann Arbor SPARK, you could find us on the web at and also on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Nathan Sprague’s Bio

Nathan Sprague is a dedicated professional at Washtenaw Community College, where he plays a dual role. As an Instructional Laboratory Assistant, he contributes significantly to the practical, hands-on aspects of learning. In addition to this role, Nathan also serves as a part-time Certified FAME Instructor, where he is responsible for teaching the Manufacturing Core Exercises. His commitment is deeply rooted in the FAME program’s goal of creating a ‘Global-Best’ workforce, emphasizing the development of high-caliber skills in the manufacturing sector. Nathan places a strong emphasis on fostering a culture of safety within the manufacturing environment, underlining his dedication to both the well-being of his students and the excellence of the industry.