3 companies benefit as workers learn from Parkland program

3 companies benefit as workers learn from Parkland program

CHAMPAIGN – Area companies say it's hard to find workers with all the skills needed to keep manufacturing equipment humming.

But a new program at Parkland College should make it easier for them.

The industrial maintenance technician program, launched this fall, is teaching 35 employees from Kraft Foods, Plastipak Packaging and Guardian West a range of skills.

Over time, they'll learn about hydraulics, pneumatics, electronics, industrial controls, blueprint reading, machining and welding, among other things.

They'll also be trained in problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, said Evert Levitt, chairman of Parkland's Department of Engineering Science and Technologies.

Eventually, the program will expand to high school students, exposing them to the same skills, giving them high school and college credit and offering them a chance for internships.

The new program was made possible though a $1.56 million job training grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.

At this point, students are taking their first class, "Computer Applications for Technicians." The class is divided into two sections. Fifteen Kraft Foods employees meet one morning a week at Parkland, while 10 Plastipak and 10 Guardian West employees have class one evening a week.

Next semester, the classes move off campus to newly leased space in the Parkview Business Center building at 917 N. Country Fair Drive, C.

Mark Combs, the project director, is busy arranging for equipment for the 5,000 square feet of lab space and the 2,500 square feet of classrooms and offices.

Among the equipment the students will use: rapid prototype machines that can design and produce three-dimensional objects, and coordinate-measuring machines that check tolerances for quality-control purposes.

Students will learn how to do preventive maintenance and how to determine when they should – and shouldn't – make repairs to equipment, Levitt said.

"Sometimes repairs cost more than buying new pumps," he said.

The training fills a real need for area manufacturers, said Brad Rauchfuss, human resource manager for Kraft Foods in Champaign.

"Manufacturing in this day and age is facing a shortage of skilled tradesmen from a mechanical and electrical standpoint," he said.

Many students coming out of high school have abandoned technical training and gone directly to college. But as the work force ages and skilled workers retire, there's a growing need for journeymen with electrical and mechanical know-how, he said.

It's hard finding applicants who have all the technical skills to be successful, said Gary Hinton, the human resource manager at the 370-employee Guardian West automotive parts plant in Urbana.

But Parkland's program should produce well-rounded employees, he said.

"This is probably one of the best programs I've seen offered, when you consider how broad it is and all the areas it's going to touch," Hinton said. "Students will find it challenging."

John Ireland, human resource manager for the Plastipak plant in Champaign that employs 660, said he's gotten good feedback from employees taking part in the program.

"I see them weekly, if not daily, and they're very pleased to have the opportunity," he said. "Attendance has been almost perfect, and they're looking forward to the next class. They're already asking, 'What are we going to be doing next semester? What are we going to be doing next summer?'"

Employers say the participants come from a range of backgrounds. Some Plastipak employees are team leaders, others are maintenance technicians or production technicians, Ireland said.

Guardian West's participants come from a variety of assignments, including the maintenance, tool-and-die and robotics areas, Hinton said.

Under the program, half the cost of tuition, fees and books is covered by the employers, and the other half is paid for by the local Workforce Investment Act program.

Next fall, Parkland plans to introduce an industrial maintenance technician program for high school students that will award both high school and college credit.

Levitt said he expects to have 16 to 32 high school students coming to Parkland for a couple hours each morning, five days a week.

The training won't be so specific that students will be equipped only for work at Kraft, Plastipak or Guardian West.

It will be "universal," Combs said. "They could go to Boeing."

According to a Parkland brochure, industrial maintenance technicians earn between $24,000 and $50,000 a year, depending on location and experience.

Besides getting dual credit, the high school students will eventually be eligible for paid internships and get to spend time in a manufacturer's facility, Levitt said.

But they'll have to take a course in work ethics before being placed at any work site, he added. That course covers topics from appearance to attitude.

Of the $1.56 million grant, Levitt said, about $800,000 will pay for equipment, and the remainder will pay for salaries of administrators and instructors and the cost of leasing the new facility and outfitting it.

In time, Levitt said, he hopes other manufacturers in the area will want to become involved in the industrial maintenance technician program.