Preparing Unemployed Workers for High-Tech Manufacturing

MassMEP and WPI partner in computer numeric control machine training at WPI’s Manufacturing Laboratories
December 13, 2016

The days of entry-level manufacturing jobs with employees pushing brooms and packing boxes in dark, dirty factories are nearly over and WPI students are helping displaced workers hit the ground running, training them to work in an increasingly high-tech manufacturing world.

On Friday morning, five men did a very special graduation walk to receive their certificates from the Central Massachusetts Workforce Investment Board and MACWIC (Manufacturing Advancement Center Workforce Innovation Collaborative) at the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MassMEP) office on Grove Street.

The group of long-term unemployed were retrained on computer numeric control (CNC) machines at WPI’s Manufacturing Laboratories by several WPI undergraduates, including Brianna Fogal ’17 (mechanical engineering) and Sam Baumgarten ’20 (computer science).

Toby Bergstrom shakes hands with graduate Greg


The seven-week retraining program—established in 2009 at the height of the economic downturn—comprises two weeks at MassMEP and five weeks at WPI. Graduates of the program receive an applied manufacturing technology pathway certification through MACWIC.

At the end of the program, which typically runs three times a year, many of the unemployed workers end up securing jobs.

Greg DiMarzio, 28, of Worcester, who had been laid off earlier this year, landed a job at Saint-Gobain in Worcester as a CNC programmer before completing the program.

“CNC was the next level for me,” DiMarzio said at the graduation ceremony. “I’ve been wanting to learn it for a long time, and now I’m confident I can make it in that industry. The student instructors from WPI were awesome. They were helpful and patient, explained things well, and they are happy to help you.”

Fogal helped train him and the others in the class. She has worked as a student instructor in the program for three years. DiMarzio was part of her sixth class. It takes commitment and dedication. Not many college students would willingly start their day at 5 a.m. to get ready to train people on CNC machines at 6 in the morning, three days a week.

“With this class, every student has a unique personality and story, and I enjoy getting to know them,” Fogal says. “They make it fun and they have such an incredible attitude. I never really thought I would enjoy teaching, but I enjoy seeing how thankful they are. Seeing them get jobs is rewarding and it’s great to see them grow.”

Adam Gatehouse ’17 (mechanical engineering) is head student instructor in the program, training graduate student Josh Colon to take over the post when he graduates.

“I really enjoy teaching,” says Gatehouse. “It sucks getting up at 5 a.m., but I like helping these guys. I didn’t realize how much fun teaching was until I started teaching this class.”

The experience Gatehouse gained also helped him in his own job search as a manufacturing engineer after graduation.

“I spent so much time in the shop and I would talk about the program to employers during interviews,” he says. “They were really interested when they heard I was teaching a CNC course for one-and-a-half years for three or four days a week.”

Colon is looking forward to teaching the next class. 

“Everybody is at a different level, different age, and come from different backgrounds, but they all come together to learn the same thing,” he says. “It is great to see. We’ve all had our ups and downs in life and it is great to help somebody out and get them on a good track to help them in the future.” 

Toby Bergstrom, director of the HAAS Technical Education Center in WPI’s mechanical engineering department, helped develop the program the past seven years.

 “We developed a system where undergraduates manage all the student workers,” Bergstrom says. “The staff’s main role is to help develop new teaching materials and guide students. Workers receiving training get to learn on our machines and we’re willing to accept the [occasional] damage to the machines and tooling, and quickly fix them to keep people working. We’re unique in that we’re willing to allow people to make a mistake.”

Leslie Parady, workforce development manager at MassMEP, says her organization partnered with WPI because the university could provide workers with training at a higher skill level.

“Employers seek that and we get them on a fast track program to get back to work,” says Parady. “In this economy, technology changes quickly and the definition of ‘entry-level’ has changed dramatically. It is not dark, dirty entry-level jobs packing boxes and pushing a broom—at least not in Massachusetts. You can’t just put people into it without foundation-level training. We took the best of what we do and what they do at WPI in mechanical engineering for this program.”

The Central Massachusetts Workforce Investment Board received a Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund grant administered by MassMEP for the training.

- By Paula Owen