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Partnering with Local College Helps Industry Fill the Skilled Worker Gap

Garrett Parker
By Garrett Parker Department Head, Computer-Integrated Machining Program, Randolph Community College, Asheboro, NC

Our community in Randolph County is very much like all the modern, industrial communities found across America. We have large manufacturers, many smaller companies, and job shops, all struggling to fill job openings calling for advanced manufacturing skills. We also have a population of folks willing to roll up their sleeves and invest their futures in a productive career. The problem, though, is that until recently, there had not been an easily accessible on-ramp to the manufacturing career highway. So, at Randolph Community College we built one.

Randolph Community College is fortunate to have an advisory board for our advanced manufacturing program comprised of several active representatives from the local manufacturing community. Their guidance and advice have provided a strong program foundation regarding the courses and equipment deemed most appropriate for our students as they pursue an associate degree leading to a great career in manufacturing.

Because of their input and contributions, we now have a machining lab that features 12 manual lathes, 12 vertical milling machines, nine CNC machining centers, seven CNC turning centers and 23 seats of Mastercam CAD/CAM software for our students and instructors. It is important that we diversify the types of machines we have in order to give our students the experience they’ll need in the field.

It Takes More Than Equipment

However, the equipment by itself cannot fill the job gap. At the start of the 2017 school year, about a dozen of our local employers got together and formed a committee whose aim was to get more qualified, trained employees for the workforce.

Kicking off what is now “Apprenticeship Randolph,” they began working with us to provide the educational aspect of a registered apprenticeship program. After many meetings and many hours spent hashing out a plan, we held a pre-apprenticeship class over the summer of 2017 for about two-dozen recent high school graduates. Subjects covered included industrial safety and a basic introduction to machining and welding. In August 2017, following this class, 16 students signed on to be full-fledged apprentices.

In the apprenticeship program, they go to a selected company and work 30 hours a week. The remaining 10 hours are used to attend classes on our campus with subjects such as manufacturing, along with Mastercam toolpath programming and CNC machine operation. Our courses in advanced manufacturing progress in a building-block manner to assure comprehension before advancing in complexity.

In the Mastercam classes, we start in our CAD/CAM lab with basic 2D drawings and generate toolpaths in Mastercam, using Machine Simulation to ensure the program is structured and efficient. The student takes the program to one of our CNC machines, sets up the workpiece and tooling, and produces the part.

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Student Wes Sugg (left) asked to work on extracurricular projects before and after class. Department Head Garret Parker (right) helped him program, setup, and produce the parts.

The parts I have them produce require a wide range of operations, including pocket milling, profiling, hole patterns, drilling, tapping and an introduction to the software’s high-speed Dynamic toolpaths. We don’t have them do just one or two projects—they do multiples of each part, with a variety of features. I equate it to learning math. I can show them how to do it one time, but when students repeat the processes over and over, they really start to understand the operations.

As the students advance, the projects become more complex, such as precision components or mold construction. They apply what they learn in their programming classes to many other courses.

A motivating carrot for sticking with the Apprenticeship Randolph program is that the students get paid while they’re on the job and they’re getting paid while they’re in school. As a registered apprenticeship program in North Carolina, books and tuition are covered. Students have zero college debt! That is an attention getter! At the end of the program, they have a Journeyman’s certificate from the North Carolina Department of Labor, as well as an Associate in applied science degree in manufacturing technology from Randolph Community College. They also have four years of on-the-job experience.

Students Meet Manufacturing

In addition to the apprenticeship program, we host a Manufacturing Day twice a year, partnering with our local K-12 school system. In the fall, we take eighth graders from nine middle schools and bus them to a local participating manufacturer. The hosts range from independent machine shops to major manufacturers. Students participate in a plant tour and become involved with that company’s products.

For example, a local battery manufacturer has a facility in Asheboro that produces many types of household batteries. As part of the plant tour, the leaders sit the students in a conference room where all the ingredients to make a battery are laid out on a table. Students use them to construct a battery. After a 1 1/2 to two-hour plant tour highlighting advanced manufacturing and automation, the students return to the conference room. The battery they constructed is connected to a light bulb. When the bulb lights up, the students typically have a “that’s really cool!” reaction.

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On Manufacturing Day, eighth graders tour a local manufacturing facility than go back to RCC for hands-on assembly, such as this plastic pipe work.

After this real-world exposure to how things are made, the buses take the students from the manufacturers to our college. This year, we bought a large variety of plastic pipe parts, including elbows and end caps, that are assembled into a trinket. After laying the parts out into several piles, we held up a finished product and said, “Here’s what you’re going to make. You have five minutes. Try to assemble as many as you can. Ready, set, go!” Once their time is up, we say, “Okay, now we’re going to show you what lean manufacturing is all about.”

This time, we break them up into teams at five different stations and show them a method of assembly using a lean concept. After giving them some basic instruction, we hit the stopwatch again and show them how many more they can make in the same amount of time, working as teams with the lean concept in place.

Following this hands-on demo, we give them a tour of our facilities, showing them the CAD/CAM lab and CNC machine tools, explaining how our course program will help them develop skill sets that will assure them a successful career in manufacturing. In the spring, we repeat the process with tenth graders.

Finally, we have a Career and College Promise program in North Carolina that, for our Computer-Integrated Machining department, is a machining pathway program whereby junior and senior students leave high school early and attend classes on campus. The classes are free and students earn high school and college credits at the same time. Once the student has received a high school diploma, he or she may continue toward an associate degree.

By partnering with our program, we expect local industry will soon stop asking: “Where will we find skilled employees?”

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