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Waubonsee revamps advanced manufacturing program

Waubonsee Community College’s Charles Ruetsche (right) who teaches manufacturing technology is former Caterpillar engineer demonstrates one college’s seven new grant-funded

Waubonsee Community College’s Charles Ruetsche (right), who teaches manufacturing technology and is a former Caterpillar engineer, demonstrates one of the college’s seven new, grant-funded CNC machines, which are used for precision work. | Submitted

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Updated: February 21, 2014 6:20AM

With the help of a half-million dollar federal grant, Waubonsee Community College has revamped course offerings and updated a machine lab in the hopes of attracting more students to advanced manufacturing.

Those curriculum changes are coming not a moment too soon for local manufacturing companies that need a more skilled workforce, according to Suzette Murray, the college’s assistant vice president who oversees career and technical education.

Employers “are beating down our door asking us to train students,” Murray said.

Waubonsee’s Board of Trustees approved a new advanced manufacturing degree at their meeting last week, as well as four new certificates that would prepare students to use manual machines, as well as program and operate computer-controlled machines used for precision work, known as CNC machines.

The degree and certificates, which vary from basic operating to more advanced programming skills, will be offered for the first time this fall.

The advanced manufacturing courses complement the college’s existing programs in computer-aided drafting, automation and welding, Murray said, and are part of the college’s effort to create a pipeline of workers to fill expected vacancies at local manufacturing companies.

A combination of factors has contributed to the lack of available workers to replace an aging manufacturing workforce, Murray said.

Many students and parents have an outdated perception that manufacturing jobs are unskilled, low-wage and require getting dirty, Murray said. The job losses that hit manufacturers during the recession also took a toll.

“So nobody has encouraged students to look into this field,” Murray said. “We want to spark students’ interest in it.”

The Waubonsee effort comes on the heels of other local initiatives to assess the job market and fill gaps in high-skilled fields.

Aurora’s Pathways to Prosperity initiative brought Harvard researchers to the Fox Valley in September 2012. Researchers discovered the biggest local growth sectors are high-tech manufacturing, information technology and health care — but found few pathways exist for young people to pursue these careers.

Aurora University is working to establish a specialized partnership school that will teach third- to eighth-grade students from four local districts about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, hoping to spark in them a lifelong curiosity about those areas.

Murray said Waubonsee also plans to let students know that manufacturing is a growth sector with many high-skilled jobs to be had locally. To spread awareness, the college is inviting students and parents to tour the facilities.

“You can tell people, ‘It’s clean and it’s a viable career,’” Murray said. “It was really getting students into our lab so you can see it.”

Waubonsee updated its machining lab this summer with a $526,000 grant from the federal government. The money came from a pot of $12.9 million awarded to the Illinois Network for Advanced Manufacturing, a consortium of 21 community colleges, by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Through the stimulus and other legislation, the federal government committed to funding career training with a focus on high-wage and high-skill areas that can be taught in two years or less.

Waubonsee used its grant money to buy seven new CNC machines for precision work and to upgrade its manual equipment. The CNC machines are state-of-the-art and expensive — they can retail for $80,000 to $150,000 apiece, Murray said.

The college also hired a new full-time manufacturing technology instructor. A former manufacturing engineer at Caterpillar, Charles Ruetsche, 28, was brought on in December to teach and serve as the college’s liaison to the local manufacturing community and high schools.

Ruetsche will look for internships for Waubonsee students, as well as reach out to current students at local high schools and the Indian Valley Vocational Center and Fox Valley Career Center to let them know about advanced manufacturing career options.

Murray said the college hopes Ruetsche’s real-world experience and younger age will encourage high school students to see the potentials of advanced manufacturing.

The college also is asking different degree programs to work together, such as having machine tools students build products that computer-aided drafting students designed. It’s more representative of what happens on the job, Murray said, when programmers have to work with operators and engineers to make and test products.

“That’s kind of a focus of our curriculum going forward: Cooperation among the disciplines so they’re not in silos,” she said. “We’re trying to recreate real workplace situations for the students.”

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