Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), in partnership with the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MassMEP), today announced that it will give a $2.5 million grant in the form of software and educational materials to dozens of Massachusetts vocational high schools to allow students to gain skills on advanced high-tech machinery.
And in a unique twist, a version of the program software and curriculum to be used by high schools has been used for the past several years at WPI. During that time, WPI undergraduate students have trained long-term unemployed how to use computer numeric control (CNC) machines using similar materials.
"The grant that we're giving to the vocational high schools would not have been possible if we hadn’t been teaching this retraining class at WPI over the years," said Torbjorn Bergstrom, director of the Haas Technical Education Center at WPI's Washburn Shops, where the classes for unemployed workers take place. "The software and curriculum we've developed while teaching this retraining class has enabled us to produce the materials we're now giving to the vocational schools."
Today more than 100 vocational high school students and teachers from across the state are on hand at Atwater Kent Laboratories during the formal announcement of the grant. WPI will provide the software known as LearnCNC™ Software while MassMEP provides the curriculum that supports the Manufacturing Advancement Center Workforce Innovation Collaborative’s Applied Manufacturing Technology Pathways Certification. The MACWIC is the statewide focal point for employer-led workforce training initiatives.
Leslie Parady, project manager for MassMEP, said vocational schools interested in receiving the materials must first undergo baseline testing to determine the level of the student aptitude and workforce readiness. Once that is determined, the curriculum and software will be made available. She said she expects most schools will achieve the second level of credentialing, which would enable students to become machine operators and quality inspectors following high school.
Some of the schools that will be present include Worcester Technical High School, Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School in Marlborough, Greater Lowell Technical High School, Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in Billerica, and Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School.
While the grant is new, there are already proven successes with the program. MassMEP and WPI have been training dislocated workers since 2009. The trainees first participate in a two-week training session at MassMEP’s Worcester office, followed by a five-week hands-on training session at WPI's Washburn Shops. There are 12 students per class; up to four training sessions run each academic year.
Michael Trishin, a 54-year-old machinist from Franklin, Mass., who has been unemployed since last September, said he is gaining invaluable skills at the retraining program. "No company can devote the type of time to train us in the way we've learned here at WPI," said Trishin during a recent class. "I'm really updating old skills using new machines."
Similarly,Tamar Kuipers, 42, of Winchendon, Mass., an electrical technician who has been unemployed for two years, spoke highly of the WPI retraining program. "This is a great program," said Kuipers, during a break using the CNC machine. "I'm familiar with blueprints, but this program is enabling me to read blueprints and it gives me more hands-on skills."
On a recent visit to the retraining class, Katie Picchione, a 19-year-old WPI sophomore and program trainer, moved easily from machine to machine, engaging the trainees and answering their questions. She also noted that she has learned from them as well.
"This program definitely gives me perspective on the importance of continuing your education at any age," said Picchione. "And I've learned from them as well, as far as understanding different techniques for using the machines."
Bergstrom noted that WPI has worked with the MassMEP for several years offering the classes, and those unemployed have a more than 95 percent job placement rate. Trainees who complete the class have the opportunity to receive 26 credits toward an associate’s degree in applied manufacturing technology training from Quinsigamond Community College.
Following the grant announcement, trainees will also have an opportunity to attend a job fair at WPI's Career Development Center and meet with prospective employers.
"The most important thing is that the [trainees] become comfortable with the machines and learn a lot of different techniques to perform some of the very basic steps, so that regardless of what company they work at they can use those tools," said Bergstrom.