College of the Albemarle grows machinist program to fill employer needs

College of the Albemarle grows machinist program to fill employer needs

One of the longest running programs at the College of the Albemarle recently received new equipment to help fill the skills gap for machinists in the area. In October 2019, the Golden LEAF Foundation Board of Directors awarded the College of the Albemarle $125,000 to purchase machining equipment used primarily in its Computer Integrated Machining and Computer Aided Drafting programs. Several area companies need machinists trained on this equipment to fill available jobs.

Golden LEAF funds were used for the purchase of a CNC multitasking lathe and a coordinate measuring machine / laser scanner. This equipment has allowed the College of the Albemarle to train students and incumbent workers on the state-of-the-art machinery currently used in local industries.

“Demand for these positions is so great that employers will often hire new employees with no training,” said David Chambers, Machining Instructor/Program Coordinator for Computer Integrated Machining at the College of the Albemarle. “Continuing education is key to help skill up these employees.”

Training on this equipment is required for machining contractors engaged by the U.S. Coast Guard, said Chambers. Hockmeyer Equipment Corporation, with manufacturing headquarters in Elizabeth City, recently announced an expansion of 90 employees. Hockmeyer has communicated to the college both the need for incumbent worker training and the eligibility of new workers trained on this equipment to be hired directly into higher-level machinist positions at the company.

The new machining was in place for the spring 2020 semester. Then the pandemic halted face-to-face instruction.

“Mr. Chambers was very innovative with his students,” said Michelle Waters, Dean of Business, Industry, and Applied Technologies / Campus Administrator at the Regional Aviation Technical Training Center with the College of the Albemarle. “He used GoPro cameras to make live videos, showing how to use the machines. He stayed in constant contact with his students and used software for the curriculum pieces.”

Students were allowed back on campus in May 2020.

“Mr. Chambers spent the summer catching them up on their lab skills,” said Waters. “Our students did so well because of his leadership.”

The program has benefited from lessons learned while doing remote work.

“We are still in the blended format,” said Waters. “Machining students still do some of the coursework online. We are finding what works best and keeping it moving forward.”

The program is training as many students as pandemic protocols allow to help fill the need for employees.

“We are already seeing a huge demand with employers,” said Waters. “We are expecting the  floodgates to open. The biggest hold up for everyone is the lack of skilled labor. It is bad when there is something you need, and there is not a supply.”

The program has had nine students complete the two and a half semester-long program. Seven of the students were employed as machinists and the other two already had jobs. The program currently has seven students in its curriculum program and six incumbent workers in its continuing education program. 

“There is more demand for workers than students coming through the programs,” said Waters. “There is a pipeline to employment through the college’s career and tech programs. Employers often come to their local community colleges first because they trust us, and they know the quality of students that we produce and the skills that we are teaching. We are doing everything we can through recruitment and partnerships with them to help fill  supply and demand.”

The college has even started a program for prospective students to see what career training opportunities are available, called Test Drive.

“Nobody really knows what a machinist does,” said Chambers. “We find it very important to get students on our campus to see that advanced manufacturing is clean and safe. When you work on these machines, it is in a climate-controlled environment. If we get these potential students on tours, they see that.”

This strategy is helping increase registrations for classes.

“This is a great way for people to come in, meet the instructor, see the facilities, and do a hands-on project related to that area to see if it’s something they are interested in or good at doing,” said Waters. “They can ask about careers, payment options for school, enrollment process, and next steps. We provide all the other support pieces that are important to student success.”

Starting machinists make between $12-$20 in the region served by College of the Albemarle students. 

“These programs offer career and advancement opportunities,” said Waters. “Students can go from college to career in less than a year.”

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