WITC programs provide crucial skills for manufacturing hopefuls

March 23, 2012

From superiortelegram.com: “WITC programs provide crucial skills for manufacturing hopefuls” — Air pumps puff while two sets of hands unscrew and connect tubes on a pneumatic unit.

Two students on the opposite side of the shop are screwing together something that looks like a motor with tubes running into a reservoir. Other students sit at computers and chat while a disk sander screams and a radio plays disco music and 1980s rock.

This is Steve Miller’s hydraulics and pneumatics class on a recent day at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in Superior.

Business is looking up in Superior, with hundreds of manufacturing jobs expected to become available during the next few years. And the Superior campus of Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College offers hands-on training in the fields where most of the positions will be added.

The school’s industrial programs include welding and industrial maintenance, machine tooling and technical studies, industrial automation and information technology.

Miller’s students are building a hydraulic unit from the ground up. He says this shows them how to put together and disassemble a machine to learn how it functions.

In addition to learning how things work manually, Miller instructs his students in using computer-to-machine techniques. The students complete online work with hydraulics and pneumatics theory while learning skills in a lab.

The starting salary for maintenance technicians, according to Miller, is about $40,000. As careers advance, salaries can go as high as $90,000 annually. Though there is a waiting list to get in, Miller only accepts five students each year into the program.

Another class offered by WITC is the two-year Industrial Maintenance program, which teaches the skills needed for fixing machines in a factory setting. Among these skills are basic electrical work, motor control, mechanical driving, rigging and pumping. With proper certification, students can find positions in paper mills, refineries, wood manufacturing firms and mining operations.

In Ken Jones’ machine tool class, students make tool parts not only for industrial use, but for health care and defense industries.

The machine tool technician program teaches students how machine parts work and how to use the tools needed to produce a product or perform a service. First-year students learn manual machining, using lathes to shape and cut metal parts. Most of this first year consists of making cutting tools and building gear pullers and small motors. Students also learn how parts work for lifting and pinching in the construction industry. At the end of the first year, students will build the end attachment for an excavator.

For the second year, students work with Jon Willoughby on computer numerical controls (CNCs) and a CNC lathe, for which a technician enters a program into a controller to make the right command to make a certain part. It may involve different actions that determine the shape and texture of the part.

Willoughby plays an active role in advising and retraining students: “Seeing them change over a two-year period, having them come back and visit, and say, ‘This is what I’m doing now’ is what is rewarding,” he said. “I usually tell them, ‘Bring me some parts you made’.”

A second-year student, Ross Stariha, was motivated to enroll in the machine tool technician program because of the availability of jobs in manufacturing and the course’s high placement rating, a sentiment echoed by many of his fellow students. The second-year student comes from a construction background.

“I have measured and built things,” Stariha said, “but I didn’t know much about machines until I came here.”

Cody Christianson from Miller’s class said that several things about the industrial programs appealed to him, including a family heritage. “My dad works in the same field,” Christianson said.

He likes hands-on work and teamwork — and the fact that there will be jobs waiting for graduates doesn’t hurt either. He’s already looking into BNSF Railway and openings at the Duluth airport.

And with positions flooding in from several manufacturing opportunities in the area, students have a right to be optimistic about their prospects.

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