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Change The Culture, Fill The Skills Gap

Jason Hill Instructor of Computer Integrated Machining Rowan-Cabarrus Community College
By Jason Hill Instructor of Computer Integrated Machining, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College

Colleges and universities are playing a crucial role helping North Carolina address a statewide skilled labor shortage.

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 Jason Hill and a student set up Mastercam Surface toolpath for an engine cylinder.

According to Raleigh-based myFutureNC Commission, 50 percent of North Carolina employers are unable to hire needed workers because prospects lack employable skills, technical skills, and overall education. Even though North Carolina has experienced explosive growth in diversity, size, and economic activity, its pool of qualified and skilled laborers remains stagnant. Sixty-seven percent of the state’s jobs will soon require a post-secondary degree or quality credentials. Only 49 percent of North Carolinians between the ages of 25 and 44 meet these educational requirements. To close this gap, myFutureNC set a goal to ensure that two million North Carolinians, ages 25 to 44, receive high-quality, post-secondary degrees or credentials by 2030.

At Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, Salisbury, N.C., we’re doing our part to tackle the skilled labor crisis. Our 40 programs of study include industrial and engineering technologies.

Making these programs appealing to high school students and graduates is a first step in building our state’s skilled labor pool. As a machining instructor, I see first-hand the debate that some families face when deciding to send their child to a technical school or college over a traditional four-year college. It can be a hard sell, but it shouldn’t be. If we can get young people excited about manufacturing, the skills gap issue could be a thing of the past.

To do that, we need to change the culture and eliminate any biases toward industrial trades.

Encouraging our future workforce to explore manufacturing careers starts with addressing common misconceptions. When some people think of manufacturing, they may envision dirty, grimy machine shops and factories. I’ve worked in manufacturing for my entire adult life and have never walked into a filthy shop or plant. You could eat off the floors in some of these places, mainly due to ISO standards.

Another misconception is that machining jobs are synonymous with minimal skills and minimal pay. One look at the power, precision, and speed of today’s machine tools and the sophistication of CAD/CAM software demonstrates the need for skilled CNC programmers and machinists.

As for earning potential, families I meet are often shocked when they learn about compensation for CNC programmers and machinists. I have 18-year-old students who, after graduation, have full-time jobs that pay $45,000 a year. To top it off, they have no debt. Now that’s something to get excited about. As I tell my machining students, once you have this skill set you can write your own ticket. Technical education brings career opportunities, especially if it is geared toward employer needs.

Machinists Needed, Not Operators

After my time as an aviation machinist in the U.S. Navy, I spent several years in private industry. When I joined the team at Barefoot CNC, Morganton, N.C., a Mastercam reseller, I was in and out of almost every shop in North and South Carolina. That’s when I began to understand what employers in our region needed. It was eye opening. Everyone was looking for well-rounded machinists, not people who can just operate machines. Employees need to know design and engineering. I’ve tried to bring that perspective back to the classroom because, sometimes, there can be a disconnect between engineering and the manufacturing floor.

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This steam engine, designed in Mastercam by RCCC Computer Integrated Machining Technology students, won first place in the Teams Division at the 2019 Masters of CAM Wildest Part Competition.

When I joined Rowan-Cabarrus Community College as a machining instructor, I relied on my years in the private sector for a real-world approach in the classroom. I have always pushed CAM and CNC technology, and the students who embrace it do great. Our curriculum encompasses CNC and CAM technology and includes Intro to CAM, CAM 1 & 2, Advanced Multiaxis Applications, and CNC Machining. To tie it all together, we equip students with CAD/CAM software, specifically Mastercam 2019.

Manufacturing With Design

I emphasize design for manufacturing, especially in our capstone class, which requires students to design and manufacture steam engines. To produce the engines, students redesign existing ones in SOLIDWORKS and program toolpaths in Mastercam. From the moment they are introduced to the software, students are visibly excited about the capabilities. Some even learn additional software functions during their free time. The effort both in and out of the classroom is paying off. For the past five years, 100 percent of our Computer Integrated Machining Technology students have full-time jobs when they graduate.

Hands-on projects are the best way to build student interest in machining. We start off simple and work our way up. In our Intro to CAM class, for example, students produce their own license plates. The requirement is removing material. We focus on the software’s Dynamic Motion technology, which uses the tool’s full flute length for more consistent tool wear and extended tool life.

Students also learn traditional machining methods to understand controlling cutting techniques and tool load. We conduct studies using traditional methods of stepping down, and then we’ll do the same part using Dynamic Motion technology. It’s exciting, especially to anyone who has never seen it before. I’ll let the cutting tool go as fast as it can while we talk about feed rates or chip per tooth and surface footage. Students are enthusiastic when they see chips fly and they understand how to use the whole tool to rough the part out. It’s not just material removal.

To keep students engaged, class projects change each year. One year it’s a fidget spinner, and the next year it could be an elaborate doorstop. We just draw a part and figure out if we can make it. I’ve always felt this hands-on, collaborative approach helps students through the actual production process.

Last semester, my class produced engine cylinders. The five-axis part was designed in Mastercam. Each cylinder measures 21 × 8 × 3" (533 × 203 × 76 mm)—the biggest part that the students could fit on the machine. The design is based on a part recovered from the wreck of the USS Monitor, a Civil War-era, steam-propelled, ironclad ship that sank off the coast of North Carolina. The challenging project was a hit with the class and with the judges at the 2019 Masters of CAM Wildest Part Competition, sponsored by Mastercam. The Rowan-Cabarrus Community College team, led by student Seth Culp, placed first in the Teams Division.

Seeing my students’ excitement as they design and machine parts gives me great hope for the future of manufacturing, not just in North Carolina but nationwide. By exposing high school and college-age students to sophisticated machining capabilities and the potential career opportunities in manufacturing, we can replenish America’s skilled labor pool.

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