In the last few decades, technology has pushed blue collar jobs in the U.S. away from heavy industry and toward skilled trades. North Florida Community College is hoping a new program will prepare its students for these jobs of the future.
It’s called the Automation and Production Technology program; the idea is to prepare students for manufacturing jobs that have become increasingly dependent on automatic and programmable technologies. NFCC has focused on putting its students face-to-face with the same machines they’ll use professionally.
Bill Eustace is the program’s instructor. He says learning skills like how to use a programmable logic controller or PLC can be highly beneficial in an industrial setting.
“The PLC is basically a control switch,” Eustace says, “[it] tells something to do something. It could be a gate that opens up, it could be a different conveyer system that turns on – several different functions of a PLC.”
The workshop also has two CNC – or computer numeric control – machines for crafting parts based on a computer model. There’s even a small FANUC robot; it’s on of those arm-like machines you see building cars in commercials.
Another station has a hydraulic controller.
“A lot of students around this area are going to be introduced to this at a very young age,” Eustace says. “A lot of the equipment off tractors and things like that for daddy’s farm, run off of hydraulics; so bucket loaders, front-end loaders, things of that nature, they’ll have been exposed to this already”
And this brings up the other goal of the program.
The NFCC is in Madison, a rural city about 50 miles east of Tallahassee. As the economy has made this shift toward automation in manufacturing, the brunt of that change has fallen on rural areas. For instance, in 2006, a Smithfield meat packaging facility based in Madison closed. Nearly 500 people lost their jobs in that one closure alone. For scale, 2010 U.S. Census figures put Madison’s entire population at less than 3,000. The new program is part of an effort by the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education to support these communities. The grant will help fund the program through 2017, and the college will take over from there.
David Dunkle oversees the school’s efforts in career technical education, and he’s excited about how fast students will see results.
“It’s only an eighteen week course, so in less than six months, somebody can have the hands on experience, they’ll have the industry credentials to go right into work,” Dunkle says. “So you don’t have to go to school for four years to make decent money.”
And Dunkle says local businesses need employees with the skills students will gain in the automation program.
“Bill had mentioned earlier Nestle, Snyder’s/Lance, Chemring Ordinance is another company in Perry; Georgia Pacific, Foley Cellulose – they just recently awarded a $900 scholarship. So there are companies in the area, and statewide advanced manufacturing is on the rise,” Dunkle says.
NFCC officials say they’re expecting between 20 and 25 students for their first term. Classes will begin early next year.