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Chamber Members Get Taste of Manufacturing

​A third-semester student in the Electromechanical Technology program at Chippewa Valley Technical College (CVTC) had a lucrative offer from a Bloomer company recently, Instructor Jon Brutlag told a group of Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce members Thursday. In exchange for a commitment to their company when he finished his studies, the company offered to foot the bill for the rest of the student’s education.

That’s how sought-after CVTC graduates in the Electromechanical Technology program have become. Brutlag said the program has 100 percent placement into jobs paying more than $20 an hour, and local manufacturers can’t get enough of them.

“They are recruiting down to the first-semester students now,” Brutlag said.

The Chamber members took tours of CVTC’s manufacturing center at the Gateway campus following the Chamber Breakfast, hosted by the College to mark October as Manufacturing Month. The members heard a lot about industry’s need for trained workers and CVTC’s efforts to meet the demand.

Tim Tewalt, an instructor in Industrial Maintenance, said CVTC’s placement rate in that field was 96 percent, with 91 percent retention. The average salary for a worker after one year is over $39,000, he said, and the students are diverse, from 18 to 23-year-olds to people over 50.

“Sometimes people don’t realize they’re so brilliant. They get a chance and they just blossom,” he said.

Instructor Wade Latz spoke enthusiastically about the Machine Tooling Technics program and the high demand for program graduates.

“Last year, I could have placed 10 years’ worth of graduates, in one year,” he said.

That can be looked upon as both good and bad news, Latz suggested. It’s an example of the gap between available jobs and workers trained to do them, a nationwide problem.

“For our students, I’m excited. For our country, I’m concerned,” Latz said.

Along the tour, the Chamber members saw why manufacturing jobs require a higher level of training today than in past years. As Latz spoke, students behind him worked on sophisticated, computerized CNC machines. He later showed the visitors a drill bit one-third the diameter of a human hair.

According to Latz, companies today are saying, “Workers have to have mechanical skills, math skills, engineering skills, and, by the way, we need more graduates.”

Some of the visitors were amazed at what they saw.

“This is fantastic! I love this stuff,” said Paul Kohler of Charter Bank, one of the area’s largest commercial lenders.

“I was just amazed. They really are on the cutting edge of technology,” said Jeff Stevens of Chestnut Consulting.

Others were more familiar with manufacturing, but still appreciative of the tour.

“I don’t get to see this side very often,” said Dana Heller of DCS Netlink, who works with many manufacturers. “Banking and manufacturing have a great need for technology. This is all about technology.”

Bob Sather of Ace Ethanol knows the value of CVTC graduates. He said his company hires Industrial Mechanics graduates, at about $23 an hour.

Many were impressed with the work of the students, such as the displays shown by ElectroMechanical Technology Instructor Gary Johnson. A mini-bowling alley and a machine that plays a guitar were among the student projects shown. Johnson said that for the final semester advanced project, he just gives the students an object like a guitar and tells them to invent something to make it work.

Those kinds of creative thinking skills impressed Heller, who knows what manufacturers are looking for.

“It’s not just the technical skills, it’s the soft skills too,” he said.

Listening to business and industry to find out what skills they need workers to have is what CVTC has been doing for a century, said President Bruce Barker in his opening remarks at the breakfast.

“Education needs to be aligned with business and industry,” said Barker, who added that the latest studies show a need for more worker training, and more workers with vocational and technical degrees.

“The job market is changing dynamically, and CVTC is responding,” noted Bill Hilgedick of Edward Jones, president of the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.