It may just be a coincidence that machinist Bill Watson, an alumnus of Polk State Corporate College’s Computer Numeric Control (CNC) Machining Program, is a lifelong fan of heavy metal band Metallica. But it is no coincidence that Polk State College has received a $100,000 grant from All Within My Hands Foundation to participate in the Metallica Scholars Initiative.
This initiative in partnership with the American Association of Community Colleges provides direct support to the College’s CNC Machining Program, including scholarships for unemployed and underemployed individuals to complete the short-term training courses, and funds for them to take the exams for six National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) certifications that will make them eligible for in-demand, high-wage jobs.
Watson, a member of the program’s first graduating class in 2017 that was funded by a U.S. Department of Labor grant, encourages prospective students to take advantage of this opportunity because it is an affordable fast track to earning invaluable skills, nationally recognized certifications, and a rewarding career.
“I worked in the restaurant industry for 15-plus years without benefits, paid time off, or retirement,” explained Watson, who was employed within a week of completing the CNC Machining Program’s Operator Track. “Now I am making almost double the salary plus benefits for a company that takes care of us.”
He went on to complete the Programming Track and, although this portion of his training was not grant-funded, he said that he has made the cost of fees back and more in just three and half years of employment.
Watson feels especially fortunate to have changed careers prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If I had stayed in the restaurant industry, I would have been out of a job for the last three months, but in machining, we don’t shut down in a time of crisis,” he said. “Machining is a growing industry that’s not going anywhere, even through a recession.”
He pointed to the nearly $2.4 trillion the manufacturing industry contributed to the U.S. economy in the fourth quarter of 2018, reported by the National Association of Manufacturers.
In Polk County, machinists of all types are in high demand, with a 5.9 percent projected growth rate over the next five years. And while the number of CNC machine tool operators is forecast to increase 17 percent across the country within that time frame, only approximately 11 Polk County residents complete a CNC machining technical education program each year.
That is why in 2017, Polk State launched its CNC program to train the next generation of highly skilled machinists for Polk County’s more than 100 machining companies. Polk State has trained more than 180 machinists since the program’s inception.
As a lead machinist for JC Machine, Inc. in Lakeland, Watson fabricates firearm components and oversees a manufacturing cell that includes six employees and eight machines that retail from $185,000 to over $300,000 apiece.
JC Machine, Inc. specializes in the manufacturing and finishing of close tolerance machined components and assemblies from all types of materials including titanium, stainless steel, aluminum, plastics, composites, and exotic alloys, supporting aerospace, defense, firearm, oil and gas, medical, robotic, electronic, food packaging, bottling, chemical, and phosphate industries. The company has hired 16 graduates of Polk State Corporate College’s CNC Machining Program.
“We are very pleased to have a local partner, such as Polk State College,” said Jay Creasy, President of JCMI. “Polk State has increased awareness of career opportunities in manufacturing through the Corporate College’s CNC Machining Program. Many individuals, either beginning their careers or looking for a change, have benefited from the program’s ability to prepare them for manufacturing job opportunities.”
“The introduction of these individuals to manufacturing has allowed local area businesses to expand their products and services, which serves the community in many ways, while increasing the median household incomes,” Creasy added. “We are excited to hear that Polk State continues to gain support and is planning to expand its training opportunities for more advanced manufacturing jobs in the future.”
Watson shared that the skills he acquired by completing both the machining and programming tracks of the CNC Machining Program, as well as his ability to hone his craft as a machinist for JC Machine Inc., have translated to other areas of his life.
“It truly has been a life-changing opportunity,” he said. “I was a bull in a china shop, but now I have finesse – I have become more precise and pay attention to detail, even at home.”
He typically works four 12-hour shifts a week, but through COVID-19, Watson has taken the opportunity to work an extra weekly shift due to high demand, although it is not expected by his employer. He added that the ability to enjoy vacation time with his family has been a special bonus of his career change.
“The flexibility is one of the best parts,” Watson said. “I can work the extra hours if I want or need to, but it’s not mandatory and I can now enjoy going out of town with my family – something that was difficult to do when managing restaurants.”
During his downtime, Watson finds himself taking part in some trade-related hobbies on smaller machines he has purchased for his home, where he also keeps all the items he fabricated during his time in the CNC Machining Program.
“It’s crazy to look back and think about how difficult it was to make that then and now it’s so easy. The stuff I do now is very complicated – it has to work,” he said. “The program at Polk State makes you feel comfortable and confident on the machines. [Instructor James] Gibbons is excellent, and the courses provide a combination of hands-on experience with the equipment and computer work.”
Watson, an advocate for Polk State’s CNC Machining Program, coincidentally attended the Metallica concert at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium in July 2017 that made the College eligible to receive the latest grant through the Metallica Scholars Initiative. All Within My Hands Foundation’s mission is to enable Metallica to give back to communities that supported the band, with recipient colleges based in and around stops on Metallica’s 2017-2019 WorldWired Tour.
“I have been a Metallica fan since I was 15 years old and the sold-out show was amazing. I was yards away in a field across from the stadium and could still feel the flames – I couldn’t imagine how the people in the front row felt,” Watson recalled. “I recommend this opportunity to anybody looking for an affordable, quality program and a rewarding career.”
Polk State’s first cohort of students with the Metallica Scholars Initiative will start the CNC Machining Program in August. Individuals who are interested in the program should contact Coordinator Jamie Rowan at [email protected] or 863.837.5954.
About Polk State College
Located in Winter Haven, Florida, and established in 1964, Polk State College is a multi-campus institution serving more than 16,000 students with Bachelor of Applied Science, Bachelor of Science, Associate in Arts, and Associate in Science degrees, as well as 12,000 students in the Polk State Corporate College with a wide range of certificate and workforce training options. The College also operates three charter high schools.
Polk State’s advantages include small class sizes; hands-on learning; dedicated faculty; day and night classes; online options; affordable tuition; excellent financial aid; and a diverse community and vibrant student life, including fine arts opportunities, clubs, and intercollegiate athletics. Visit www.polk.edu for more.
About All Within My Hands
AWMH is a non-profit, philanthropic organization created by the members and management of Metallica dedicated to creating sustainable communities by supporting workforce education, the fight against hunger, and other critical local services. 100% of donations go directly to local organizations that the Foundation supports. Please visit: AllWithinMyHands.org for more information.
About American Association of Community Colleges
As the voice of the nation’s community colleges, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), delivers educational and economic opportunity for nearly 12 million diverse students in search of the American Dream. Uniquely dedicated to access and success for all students, AACC’s more than 1,000 member colleges provide an on-ramp to degree attainment, skilled careers and family-supporting wages. Located in Washington, D.C., AACC advocates for these not-for-profit, public-serving institutions to ensure they have the resources and support they need to deliver on the mission of increasing economic mobility for all.
What Is The Metallica Scholars Initiative?
Metallica Scholars is a major workforce education initiative that provides direct support to community colleges to enhance their career and technical education programs. These programs provide skills and services to students who are looking to enter a traditional trade or other applied learning program. In 2019, ten colleges from across the country received $100,000 each to support more than 1,000 students training to enter the American workforce. The success of the program prompted us to expand the program to 15 total schools in 2020.