Loan and learn

July 1, 1999
Students get a leg up the career ladder by training on state-of-the-art machines.

Students get a leg up the career ladder by training on state-of-the-art machines.

An instructor helps a student program the Mazatrol control (top). With good instruction and experience, the student is ready to begin machining (below).

Education and practical experience go together in a good training program. But hands-on experience is even better if students practice on contemporary machinery, ensuring that they can handle the advanced technology in the field. Consequently, Mazak Corp. and North Harris College have paired up to continually train students on the newest machines.

To do this, Mazak loans machines to the school instead of selling them. "In this way," says Terry Esfeller of Mazak Corp., Houston, "students learn on the latest machines and become proficient with the most up-to-date technology.

Many other schools buy a piece of machinery that may be around for 10 to 15 years. It doesn't help the students to learn on outdated machinery."

With a new generation of controls coming out every four to five years, it's beneficial to keep the newest machines and controls cycling through the program," comments Esfeller.

The machines are loaned for a short period of time and then sold on the market as demonstration models. Because the students only cut aluminum, which doesn't wear the machines or take the paint off like steels, the machines are in good condition when they are sold.

The collaboration between Mazak and the college began when Terry Esfeller and Professor Dale Benke from North Harris College, Houston, saw a need for an up-to-date training program that would secure a skilled workforce for companies within the Houston area. The two agreed to work together, and with generous help from surrounding companies, they were off to a good start.

A local company called Varco Shaffer provided a lease-free building as the initial site for the program. Advisory committee member companies such as FMC Corp., Kennametal Inc., NASA, Reed Tool Co., and Toshiba International Corp. then helped design the curriculum. They determined what courses to teach and their content. These companies also supported the program by donating cash or resources such as CAM software packages to be used as teaching aids in the classroom.

An additional boon came when the administration at the college moved applied sciences (the discipline that includes machining trades) to its top priority in terms of funding and administrative focus. The applied technology center also received funding from the state — enough to construct a new building devoted entirely to the applied sciences disciplines.

Esfeller solicited machinery (much of which is donated by Mazak) for the school, and Benke recruited students from area manufacturing firms and from North Harris College. So with support from the community, local industry, and the educational system, Esfeller and Benke launched the CNC operator/programmer certificate track in 1997.

Program requirements
The CNC operator/programmer courses include blueprint reading, manufacturing materials and processes, computer-aided manufacturing, and extensive hands-on operation and programming of CNC mills and lathes. While in class, students learn G-code programming; Pathtrace software, which generates CNC programs, and Mazatrol, Mazak's own conversational language.

Students must complete 21 semester credit hours of course work including six semester hours in CNC mill and lathe operation at the Mazak Customer Service/Training facility in Houston.

During their last semester, students gain practical knowledge while working at local companies participating in the project. They work about 20 hr/week and must acquire at least 320 hours of manufacturing experience.

Working on Mazak machines is not a requirement during this field work because the main objective is to teach machining operations, which are all based on the same principles. But the companies involved in this final training are required to teach the students certain things. For example, students must run a CNC machine for a specified amount of time.

Upon completion of the program, graduates are awarded a North Harris Montgomery Community College Certificate and Mazak Certification as a CNC operator/programmer. The one year certificate is state certified, so students have additional proof that they have the necessary knowledge and skills to enter the workforce. Many are offered full-time positions with the company in which they interned; job placement is close to 100%.

However, if the students look elsewhere, the certificate is a plus. Esfeller says that it works like a university degree. "If an employer has two applicants for a job, one with no proof of experience or education and the other one with a certificate, there is no question as to who will be hired. It doesn't matter where they are applying or where they come from, our certificate opens the door."

The program recently certified 150 students from the past school year and has almost 90 students registered for summer courses. Its success has even led to expansion to the high school level.

Local high schools have got into the act, letting interested students take courses during the school day. Students can take two college level courses during their junior year and two more the following year. So after graduation, they need only two additional classes to obtain certification.

"This schedule lets students enter the job field just one semester after high school," says Esfeller. "Or if they choose, they can extend their education to obtain a two year degree. For those who have the resources and a desire to go on, the University of Houston, which offers manufacturing degrees, is the next step."

Hiring the right employee the first time

Hiring the right job applicant isn't always easy, which is why the Jane Addams Resource Corp. (JARC) has a new hiring test that measures specific skills needed for entry-level jobs in the metalworking industry.

The nonprofit organization, located in Chicago, designed the competencybased test to provide a standardized and fair assessment of the skills needed for such entry-level positions as punch press operator, assembler, spot welder, or lower-level inspector. An evaluator who was trained by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has reviewed the test, ensuring that it is free from all gender and racial bias. Twenty companies nationwide pilot tested the new hiring tool to determine its relevance to the industry.

JARC worked with the Precision Metalforming Association, the Prairie State 2000 Authority (the Illinois state agency that funds worker retraining and the JARC training program), and six metalworking companies to develop the test. Because it is targeted to the metalworking industry, the test fills a unique niche. Most of the hiring tests currently available measure general skills and don't necessarily assess the skills needed on the shop floor.

"The companies we worked with indicated a strong need for a hiring tool that focused on their industry and that really measured the skills they were looking for," says JARC executive director Michael Buccitelli. "This test will help companies find the skilled workers they need and help job applicants demonstrate their skills."

The test reads at a seventh grade level, and JARC seeks to translate the test into Spanish and other languages, such as Polish.