According to the National Association of Manufacturers, the annual manufacturing output of Massachusetts has increased by over $10 billion steadily from 2008 to 2018, and signs point to this trend continuing. As this industry grows, so does its need for skilled workers. Fortunately, many agencies and organizations are dedicated to bridging the gap between desperate employers and underemployed young people.
The Jobs for the Future (JFF) organization, in partnership with the federal Youth CareerConnect (YCC) program, helps to develop a manufacturing pathway for youths ages 9-14 in Massachusetts, or Pathways to Prosperity, in the form of an Innovation Pathways grant administered by the Regional Employment Board. These grants are awarded preferentially to schools with lower-income families and English Language Learning immigrant families. Wesley Carter, Program Director of Innovation Pathways & Work-Based Learning at West Springfield High School explained, “Through proper education and training, we can create opportunities to earn livable wages for workers and their families.” This training allows high school students to graduate with a sizable portion of their advanced manufacturing degree already finished.
Carter gives a series of presentations and sends out interest surveys to incoming eighth graders to gauge their initial program interest. Candidates must express interest in STEM subjects as well as be willing to take advantage of peer mentors or subject teacher support if they are not yet proficient in math or English Language Arts. “Students would ideally complete Algebra 2/Pre-Calculus in Mathematics and at least Physics in Science by the time Dual Enrollment comes available their junior year. The industry needs to have employees capable of these levels of mathematics, science, and ELA skills in order to work efficiently in an organization,” said Carter. If a student has successfully passed their prerequisites, they are enrolled in the Innovation Pathways program and allowed to take industry-focused electives while attending high school.
By the first semester of their junior year at West Springfield High, Innovation Pathways students are eligible to earn college credit through a Dual Enrollment program with partner Springfield Technical Community College’s Mechanical Engineering Technology program, where their industry-focused coursework books are completely covered by the grant. “We’ve had students come through the program and when they get to STCC, they’ve already completed maybe 24 credits of their first year,” said John LaFrancis, Professor/Department Chair of the Mechanical Engineering Technology program at Springfield Technical Community College. “The goal is to expose young individuals to manufacturing in the hopes they will continues their education after high school at STCC. We’re trying to introduce the students to manufacturing opportunities through the use of design and manufacturing and some inspection as well.”
Part of that exposure comes from an annual two-week summer camp for approximately a dozen students in the program, hosted by STCC. The school’s Mechanical Engineering Technology program is an original program of the school. Its graduates have been helping manufacturers with employment needs for over 50 years. The manufacturing lab was remodeled in 2013. This included an upgrade of 15 new Haas mills and lathes along with 80 seats of MastercamÒ CAD/CAM software for the three computer labs used in the program. Innovation Pathways students are invited to attend classes in the STCC manufacturing lab and to watch demonstrations on its five rapid additive machines, eight Haas lathes (three with live tooling capabilities and a bar feeder), and seven Haas mills (three of which are 5-axis capable). While the students are there, Professor LaFrancis does his best to keep them interested and excited for their futures.
“I think it’s important that they see assemblies,” he said, “and that they see how things can fit together from the start. If they don’t, you have to modify it to fit together when you could have just made them perfectly.” One project he recalls from previous years was a tic-tac-toe board. The top was made from Lexan, the bottom and playing pins from aluminum. The pins were made with live tooling, engraving an “X” on one end and an “O” on the other. “They drill holes in the Lexan and they counter-bore holes for the screws. Once they face mill both sides, they attach a cap. The discussion is: how do you tap a hole and which size drill do you need for tapping?” Professor LaFrancis encourages his students to ask questions, suggest creative solutions, and try things they’ve never tried before. Once he sees that the project becomes a game for them, he knows he has his students hooked.
He’s also learned that any project that the students can personalize will be a hit. “We’ve done brass name tags where they can modify the text to be what they want. They’re the West Springfield Terriers, so one student took the image of a terrier and engraved it on the tag. They were free to put what they wanted on three lines of text. They had to size using SOLIDWORKSÒ with a design package, and figure out where to place that text and how to bring those images in. We used MastercamÒ (CAD/CAM Software, CNC Software, Inc., Tolland, CT) to create the code and create the finished product.
“In our geographic location, this software is the predominant package that is used,” said Professor LaFrancis. “We made the decision probably eight years ago to switch to Mastercam because we wanted students to have the current technology when they leave the institution and go off to the world of work.” Not only is it the most widely used CAD/CAM software in the world, it also gives Professor LaFrancis the opportunity to teach his students time-saving tricks that can’t be found on any other platform. “We can’t just teach them how to make a good product. We have to ask, ‘What is the most efficient roughing toolpath we could use on the milling side? How can we get the best cycle time’ because it’s all about money out there.” Saving time becomes an afterthought with Dynamic Motion technology, a feature within the software that uses proprietary algorithms to analyze the parent material every moment it is being machined. Because of this, Dynamic can adjust the angle and speed of the cutting tool instantaneously to avoid any mistakes, even at previously impossible speeds.
Though Professor LaFrancis works hard to produce the best graduates possible who will help their companies meet that bottom line, his focus is not solely on teaching hard skills. Success to Professor LaFrancis is defined as sparking an interest in a student that might not have ever considered manufacturing and helping them navigate through their early training. He loves seeing the same high schoolers who attend his summer school show up to the Mechanical Engineering Technology program.
At STCC, students in the Mechanical Engineering Technology program have the option to complete their one-year certificate or two-year associate’s degree. On average, there are approximately 130 students in the program for both the day and evening classes, and almost all of its graduates find employment within three months of graduation. Some even continue on to Northeastern University to complete their bachelor’s degree in Advanced Manufacturing Systems. Many of these students started their journeys in the Innovation Pathways program.