John Swanson of Prescott, left, and Bert Graham of Roberts work together testing the logic gates on an electronic bread board at an Automation Engineering Technology lab at the CVTC River Falls campus. The first manufacturing program offered at the campus is finishing its first academic year this spring.
River Falls, WI – When Chippewa Valley Technical College (CVTC) announced a year ago that its River Falls campus would be offering the first year of its Automation Engineering Technology program starting in August 2016, John Swanson took notice of the opportunity to improve his position.
“I talked to my employer and they have a program where they reimburse for tuition for full-time employees,” said Swanson, who works at Bergquist, a circuit board manufacturer in Prescott. “This will certainly open some doors for me.”
The first offering of a manufacturing program at the CVTC River Falls campus gave him an easily accessible way to get that better job. It also provides employers with a much-needed source of trained workers.
“Demand for workers trained to work with automation is extremely high,” said Jeff Sullivan, CVTC dean of manufacturing. “We surveyed 15 regional employers and all said they have difficulty finding qualified employees to fill positions in this field.”
Students enroll in the two-year Automation Engineering Technology associate degree program and complete their first year at the River Falls campus. By completing the first year, they earn an Electromechanical Maintenance Technician technical diploma, which certifies their competency to troubleshoot, repair, program and assist in designing automated equipment. The second year of the program is completed at the Manufacturing Education Center in Eau Claire.
“We start from square one,” said instructor Rick Schauss. “We assume they don’t know anything about electrical equipment.”
After introductory classes in subjects like basic electronics, fluid power and automated processes, students move on to more advanced work in Programmable Logic Control (PLC), electromechanical machine principles, and digital electronics.
“We are going around to different companies like Minnesota Rubber and Plastics and Best Maid Cookies in River Falls and Nolato Plastics in Baldwin to give the students an idea of how manufacturing processes work in the plants,” Schauss said. The program is drawing students who like the high demand for workers in the field, and the hands-on nature of both the training and the job.
“On the side, I like to mess around with computers and binary code,” said Randy Vogel of River Falls. “I like the hands-on building and working with robots and programming. But what really sold me on the program was when I went to Eau Claire and saw the lab with all the robotic equipment,” Vogel added.
“I’m trying to encourage all of the students to continue the program in Eau Claire,” Schauss said. “They will be able to get higher end jobs in the engineering area, motor controls, frequency drives and PLC.”
One of the students who enrolled in the River Falls program has already made the move to the Eau Claire campus for classes. Kevin Killam of Ellsworth works as a maintenance technician at Nolata Contour, a plastic medical technology parts manufacturer in Baldwin.
“My employer asked if I wanted to do some more training and encouraged me to take this program,” Killam said. “They are helping with my tuition.”
Because Killam, 40, already had some background in the field he was able to earn credit for prior learning at CVTC.
After his first semester at the River Falls campus, Killam switched to Eau Claire because the class schedule there worked better with his work schedule. “I come to Eau Claire in the morning and as soon as I get done with classes I go to work until about midnight,” he said. Killam plans on finishing the second year of the program.
Swanson is amazed at how much he’s learned so far. “I couldn’t turn on the computer the first day here, but I had a great teacher,” he said.
Swanson, 48, also wishes he could do it all over again. “If I was 18 right now, I’d be here, doing this. “Kids come right out of high school and after a couple of years, they’re making $50,000. If you get your feet in the door, you see people making $100,000 doing things like this. You could be there in your 20s or early 30s.”
Bert Graham of Roberts took notice of the opportunity to improve his position. The 2016 River Falls High School graduate was already working in manufacturing, at Okieff Cabinet in River Falls, but wanted to do better.
“Right now, I’m in mill work, and I want to get into the actual wiring and maintenance of the machines,” Graham said.
The first year of the program in River Falls started out small. There are currently six students enrolled, but others are taking the program part-time and are not enrolled in the classes being held now.
Chippewa Valley Technical College delivers superior, progressive technical education which improves the lives of students, meets the workforce needs of the region, and strengthens the larger community. Campuses are located in Chippewa Falls, Eau Claire, Menomonie, Neillsville and River Falls. CVTC serves an 11-county area in west central Wisconsin. CVTC is part of the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) and is one of 16 WTCS colleges located throughout the state.