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Mechatronics program links to high-paying jobs

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By Bill Poovey
Published Nov. 23, 2015

Students in advanced manufacturing and industrial technologies programs at Spartanburg Community College can’t finish fast enough for employee recruiters waiting with job offers, program director Jay Coffer said. Coffer said mechatronics, a program that teaches mechanical, electrical, computer, hydraulics, pneumatics, robotics and other manufacturing skills, has grown from about 50 students two years ago to 254. His goal for next year is 300.

“They want to hire somebody today,” Coffer said. He said students at the college have access to the state’s largest campus inventory of robots, 10 of them, and the program is one of 13 nationally in the Multi-State Advanced Manufacturing Consortium that is developing an evolving workplace competency-based education curriculum for manufacturers. The robots used in automated manufacturing technology instruction have been purchased by the college, funded with grants and donated by industries, said Marv Crowe, a Technologies Division instructor who oversees the college’s consortium grant.

Instructor Marv Crowe (right) and Matthew O’Shields, who is about to graduate from the advanced manufacturing program. (Photo by Bill Poovey)

Instructor Marv Crowe (right) and Matthew O’Shields, who is about to graduate from the advanced manufacturing program. (Photo by Bill Poovey)

Crowe said the consortium’s hands-on, project-based approach that requires students to show instructors they are learning skills is “much better than 45 hours in a classroom, three exams and a final, and somebody goes out the door and maybe somebody can do something.”

“I’ve had students who had people coming after them and were begging to leave three and four weeks early,” Crowe said.

Coffer said during a recent Manufacturing Day expo for prospective students and parents that after “21 months you can have an opportunity to graduate and have a good-paying job with zero college debt.” He said the program teams with BMW, Michelin, Hamrick Mills, Spartanburg Steel Products and others in training programs.

“I had a company come in today,” Coffer said, declining to name the recruiters. “They made a presentation. They are looking immediately for technicians. Top pay is around $29.50 an hour, starting at $23 an hour.” He said the recruiters “are thinking of bumping up their wages another $2 just so they can have a better draw” among prospective trainees.

“They are saying we will take basic skill sets and we will train them to what we want,” Coffer said. “As the guy said, ‘I don’t want you to come in and know everything.’”

Coffer said the “mechatronics program is the one they are focused on.” In some cases, manufacturers are hiring students as interns and apprentices, which involves paid on-the-job training. He said the advanced manufacturing staff constantly works with manufacturers and the state’s ReadySC training program. He and others at the college connect frequently with students at career centers and local high schools “trying to get the information out that manufacturing is a fantastic working environment.”

Tokyo-based Kobelco Construction Machinery Co., which is building a $41 million hydraulic excavator production factory with 131 jobs in Spartanburg County, has the program doing their prehire and post-hire training, Coffer said.

“One of the instructors is going to Japan and will come back and do some of their training for the American side,” he said.

Matthew O’Shields, who plans to graduate in December in the automated manufacturing technology program, said he has received some job offers but is holding off. “I have a couple lined up that I am looking at. Most companies, they will wait ‘til you graduate.’ ”

Another student at the college, Randy Hawkins, of Greer, is studying industrial electricity and programmable logic controllers as a Duke Energy intern and hopefully will be going to work for the company when he finishes in December. Hawkins said he previously earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at University of South Carolina, Upstate, while working as a maintenance technician. After graduating he accepted a job as a lab technician but always had his sights on a different career direction.

“I had a lot of student debt, so I was glad to have a job,” he said. “I enjoyed the work while I was there. Just the opportunities weren’t there. It wasn’t the kind of work I intended to be in for a long term, anyway.”

Hawkins said that “after working in the field a little bit, in biology as a lab tech, I came back here to get the industrial electricity background. I was really trying to get in with Duke Energy already. I was having just a hard time getting my foot in the door because I was coming out just out of college with my bachelor’s, but I didn’t have any kind of work experience there. And it was harder for me to get work experience while getting the degree doing the four year than it has been with the two-year degree that I am getting now.” He said the “internship basically acts as a yearlong job interview for them. So they can see if I would be worth hiring. And from there I can advance through the company easier because I have my bachelor’s degree already.”

Hawkins said that as a high school student the “big thing that was preached to us was get that bachelor’s degree. If you want to get a job, get that bachelor’s degree. You need the bachelor’s degree.”

“There’s a lot of truth to that, still,” Hawkins said. “If I was talking to a group of high school students now I would tell them, first thing I would go to a two year. I would start there and get at least you can get your general education classes out of the way at a cheaper price. Financially it makes more sense, and you have a chance to figure out what you want to pursue for a long-term career. You can gain different experiences. You can get a taste for the different fields that you can be a part of.”

Reach Bill Poovey at 864-235-5677, ext. 104

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