Machine tool upgrade at Nashua Community College aims at skills shortage
NASHUA, Feb 03, 2013 (The Telegraph - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Turning a chunk of metal into a gear or a bolt or some other usable part requires knowing how to use big, complicated tools -- like a 2-ounce USB stick.
"Offline programming is a big part of the job," said Jeff Heath, a retired Sanders Associates engineer who works as a lab assistant in Nashua Community College's new Advanced Machine Tool facility.
Sit at a computer, program software to create a part, load the software onto a "geek stick" and transfer it into a computer-controlled milling machine or lathe, then oversee the resulting operation: That's how today's machine shops work.
People who want jobs as machinists have to be as comfortable with the idea of digital controls and software as they are with measuring tolerances and understanding alloys.
"It's not that hard, but you need a good math background," said Chris Byron of Epsom, who drives down to Nashua to take machining classes in the school's revamped Advanced Machine Tool laboratory, which was upgraded with help from a $1.6 million federal grant.
Byron, 28, trained as a General Motors technician but switched to machining because it offers a better future.
Also in the machining class Thursday was David Marois, who was introduced to machine tools at the Applied Technology Center when he attended Milford High School in the class of 2011. He works for Hollis Line Machine Co., which sent him to the community college to learn more.
These two are attracted to the field because it offers plenty of jobs. Manufacturing makes up more than a third of employment in Greater Nashua, the highest proportion in the state; the region is chock full of "job shops," companies with a few dozen to a few hundred employees that create metal components for clients around the world.
Local manufacturing firms regularly lament the difficultly of finding trained machinists, reflecting what is part of the so-called "middle skills" gap involving shortages of workers in jobs that need more education than high school but don't require a four-year college degree.
Julia Dennett of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston told the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce last year that the number of such workers would have to grow between 15 percent and 30 percent in less than a decade to meet anticipated demand in northern New England, and talked about salaries of $75,000 in certain skilled areas.
"Rapid Machining in Hudson has plans to hire 300 people in the next three years," said Jonathan Mason, Nashua Community College's program coordinator for the federal grant. "I haven't even gone outside the Nashua area, and I have probably 20 people who have talked to us, looking (for workers)."
Meeting that need is why NCC applied the grant from a federal program with the clumsy name Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training, a program to help underemployed and unemployed people get into the work force.
The school used the money to revamp its decades-old, 5,000-square-foot machine tool facility at its Amherst Street campus.
The facility, which opened last fall and gets a formal ribbon cutting Wednesday from 4:30-6:30 p.m., teaches kids just out of high school, military veterans (seven are signed up at the moment) and adults seeking to change careers, get a job or upgrade their skills.
Seventy-three students are in the program at the moment, said Mason.
The room is big but full to bursting, jammed with 15 floor-mounted machines -- lathes and milling machines, some as big as a car and costing much more -- plus a 3-D printer and support material like air compressors and tool storage.
Giving a tour, Heath talked about knee mills and bed mills, single-point threading and rotating tool heads, universal controllers and the clamping collets, 21/ 2-axis controllers and automated cooling systems.
Modern machine tools are often lumped under the acronym CNC -- "computer numerical control" -- a general term for the computerized controls that allow today's machines to perform dozens or even hundreds of individual tasks needed to cut metal. The word "computer" is probably the most important one in that description.
David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, follow Brooks' blog on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).
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