My eldest son, Jacob, crossed the Palace Theater stage in cap and gown Thursday afternoon to accept his Level II Advanced Manufacturing Certificate from Naugatuck Valley Community College.
His path from high school graduate to manufacturing certification took the standard four years, but was anything but typical.
As shirt-button-popping proud as Thursday’s moment made me, though, I’m not bragging about what Jake has accomplished. Instead, I hope his experience can demonstrate to parents and educators they should at least consider the notion that there are viable, and much less expensive, options to a four-year degree.
In Jake’s case, money wasn’t the issue. Less than three months after high school, he was situated with two roommates in a cramped dorm room at Fitchburg State College (now a university) in north-central Massachusetts. Located in an old mill town, the small four-year school offers a nicely manicured campus for its 3,500 undergraduate students. It also offers an excellent computer programming curriculum, which is what had attracted Jake.
Less than halfway through his first semester, however, Jake was back home. Out of respect for him I will spare you the details, except to say this had absolutely nothing to do with alcohol or drugs. Let’s just say he wasn’t ready for the independence of college life.
He next took some classes at Gateway Community College in New Haven and North Haven, with mixed results. It became obvious the problem was that Jake wanted to take classes only in his field of study, computer programming, and not bother with English, social studies or similarly unrelated subjects. Of course, that’s not how college works.
Then I read about NVCC’s Advanced Manufacturing and Technology Center. The Waterbury school and two other state community colleges split $17.8 million in 2012 to expand manufacturing training programs. The result was a 6,400-square-foot manufacturing facility that occupies most of the fourth floor of NVCC’s Technology Hall.
THAT’S WHEN IT HIT ME: Jake is a superior math student. He loves to solve puzzles (he collects Rubik’s cubes). He loves to make things, the more complex the better (think origami or Lego kits). When focused, he’s detail oriented. He learns best in a hands-on environment.
Like his Lego pieces, Jake and the manufacturing program were a perfect fit.
“There is still class work, but a large majority of it is hands on, which I like better than sitting in a classroom all day,” he told me Wednesday.
Jake said he had no idea what to expect when he began by taking a six-month introductory course.
“I really didn’t know much about the manufacturing program,” he said. “I think a lot of people see it as just assembly-line work. But a lot of the assembly is done automatically by the machine, so mostly what they need is people running the machine.”
If that sounds tedious, Jake assured me it isn’t. “The machines don’t run themselves,” he said. “You have to set them up, make sure they’re in line. You have to make sure you stay within the tolerances you’re given. … You need to figure out what speed you’re running your machine at, which varies by the material and by the tools you’re using. There’s quite a bit to take into consideration.”
That’s not to mention learning to read blueprints, or doing the higher-level calculations involved in setting up the machines — especially the computer numeric controlled, or CNC, lathes and mills.
THE TWO-SEMESTER PROGRAM ISN’T EASY; after starting last fall with 57 students of all ages, 40 received their Level II certificates Thursday, according to Joe DeFeo, coordinator for NVCC’s program.
Of the 40, 23 have already been offered jobs, DeFeo said, while four others, including Jake, want to go on to get an associate’s degree in engineering.
“I want to get into the designing part of the manufacturing industry,” Jake said. “Designing and engineering the blueprints, that’s what interests me most. But a large majority of my classmates just want to get right out there and work.”
Thanks to this program, they can, and for wages that can start at $15 to $19 an hour, according to the state Department of Labor.
DeFeo said he’s “confident that we’re going to place about 90 percent of our students,” which he noted is everyone but the four who plan to continue their educations.
His father worked in manufacturing for 50 years, and discouraged him from doing the same, but things have changed dramatically, DeFeo said.
“Parents and teachers need to understand that manufacturing is not like it used to be,” he said. “It’s totally different, clean. Advanced manufacturing is changing everything.
“This program is … a great bridge to a career,” DeFeo said. “If you don’t want your kid to go to a four-year college and spend a hundred grand, send your kid to a program like this.”
IT WORKED FOR JACOB. Thanks to various grants and scholarships that are available to all students, the only debt he has now is a small student loan from his brief time at Fitchburg.
“It’s given me a lot of direction,” Jake said of the manufacturing program. “Instead of being completely unsure, it’s something I tried, and now I have somewhere to go instead of having no idea.”
I make my living using words, Jake, but I couldn’t have said it better myself.