Colleges take Wyoming machining into future

Senior Communications Specialist

The gleaming white machines sitting in Sheridan College’s newest classroom wouldn’t look out of place in a hospital or a laboratory.

A half dozen students huddled around one of the digital screens on a recent September afternoon, pointing out measurements, numbers and settings to each other. Satisfied, one student started the machine. Through a small window, spectators could see the lathe’s drilling tool begin shaping the hunk of metal.

“Using the CNC machine is my favorite,” 18-year-old student Josie Atkinson said. “You punch the codes in and, soon, you have something amazing to hold in your hands.”

Atkinson is one of a couple dozen students in the Machine Tool Technology program at Sheridan College. Students in the two-year program learn manual mill and lathe work and computer numerical control machining. Both require math, creativity and higher level thinking, but the CNC machines are the industry’s future.

That’s why the college added a 27,205-square-foot building to its tech center and filled it with nearly a dozen CNC machines. This is the first semester in the new space.

“Nationwide, demand for machinists is at an all-time high right now,” professor Sara Spann said. “As the industry moves into machining, computing is a heavy component. There’s a fair amount of math involved, and a lot of planning and thinking.”

Machinists create everything from orthopedic implants to car engines. Unlike welders or construction workers, Spann said many people don’t fully grasp what it is a machinist does or why people might be interested in the career.

To remedy that, Sheridan College holds regular tours for high school students. Often, people drawn to the program are those interested in working with their hands.

And the students who finish the machine tool technology program can expect lucrative jobs.

“All of these guys will have jobs waiting for them three months before they graduate,” Spann said.

Demand is so high companies like Sheridan-based CraftCo Metals Service are eager to hire students even after the first year.

Students start out as part-time employees at CraftCo while they finish the program. The company provides on-the-job training with a wider variety of work. The goal is to hire the student as a full-time employee upon graduation.

“We prefer that we obtain as large a portion of our workforce as possible locally,” said Gilbert Foree, machine shop manager. “Traditionally, we’ve been importing help, which is expensive, time consuming and risky to employer and employee if things don’t work out.”

CraftCo still has to import skilled employees, but Foree said the increased student capacity in machining programs and emphasis on the industry have helped mitigate that need in the past decade.

Other area manufacturers have benefited, too. Emit Technologies, L&H Industrial and Vacutech have all hired students from the machine tool technology program.

“The metalworking industry in general is facing a very daunting challenge to replenish the baby boomer workforce,” Foree said. “There was a huge gap for decades where parents steered their kids away from vocational trades. That resulted in a couple generational gaps of not replenishing the labor pool for skilled workforces.”

The median age of manufacturing workers nationally in 2012 was nearly 45 years old, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The state Department of Workforce Services projects Wyoming will need nearly 1,400 workers during the next decade just to replace retirees in the diesel, welding, construction and machine tool trades.

It’s a problem other Wyoming community colleges have also recognized.

In Cheyenne, Laramie County Community College is constructing a $14.1 million flex-tech building. The building will make room for LCCC’s diesel technology and welding programs while opening existing real estate to a potential machine tool program.

“Southeast Wyoming has been growing at an incredible rate, and (LCCC) President Joe Schaffer has been talking about the need for a manufacturing and machining program,” said David Curry, manager of Technical Studies Program Development. “We hear it from the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, too. There is a need for machinists, for manufacturing.”

The first step in creating the machine tool program would be an advisory council, which would include industry leaders and community college officials. The group would narrow the focus and decide what the program would look like.

The new flex-tech building should be ready by fall 2016. It would likely be another year before the school launches a new program like manufacturing.

Meanwhile, Wyoming employed 9,900 manufacturers in August, a 1 percent gain over August 2014.

In just a couple short years, 18-year-old Casey Leong, a Sheridan College student, hopes to be among them. His stepdad is a machinist and he still remembers when he first found himself hooked on creating.

“When I was 13, my stepdad helped me build a rifle. That’s something I did – that I created – and I can be proud of that. I’ve shot in competitions with it,” Leong said. “This is something where you can create and you can feel good about it. There’s not many jobs like that.”

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