Not Your Father’s Job Shop

The Advanced Manufacturing Technology Department at South Texas College’s McAllen, Texas, campus is pioneering the way to raise awareness of manufacturing as a career choice for everyone. Their leading-edge approach to promoting manufacturing as a career choice has been studied by other school systems and institutions throughout the country.

South Texas College offers several certificates and degrees tailored toward the individual needs of the student. The Fast Track degree is a one-year program that covers blueprint reading, basic machine operation, and mathematics while the full one-year certification program covers everything in the Fast Track degree plus 3D Parametrics, G&M codes, CNC programming and CAM. According to Daniel Morales, one of the pioneers of this program and a former precision manufacturing instructor, the college has a large dual enrollment program through its affiliation with roughly nine local high schools. In order to keep everything consistent so that the same degree or certificate is awarded to all students, each school is required to purchase the same CNC machines (Haas from Haas Automation, Oxnard, CA) and CAD/CAM software (Mastercam® software from CNC Software, Inc., Tolland, CT) that are found in the college’s own shop.

The schools that have successfully landed grants from the state are able to build entire labs in order for their kids to earn full associate degrees as part of the college’s Early College program. Unlike the traditional manufacturing program that begins during a student’s junior or senior year, the Early College trajectory is open to accepted freshmen who continue to work throughout their four high school years to earn the associate degree.

Because there is no set national or state-wide curriculum for programs such as this, South Texas College was able to design its own. “We get to set the rules for what is best for our students – the software, programs, and the equipment that best suits the industrial environment and the learning environment,” said Morales. They rely heavily on their advisory board which is made up of seven local manufacturing companies to ensure that the kids are learning the skills they will need to get jobs and retain them. Plant managers review and audit the programs once per semester and provide suggestions if necessary.

When deciding which software to use to teach the CAM portion of the program, the faculty wanted a strong, established software product that was standard in most shops, had good tech support, was easy to learn, and came with a sound curriculum behind it. They chose Mastercam because it ultimately exceeded their basic criteria. The solid relationships the college has built with both their industrial supplier, MLC CAD Systems (Austin, TX), and educational supplier Teaching Systems, Inc. (Arlington, TX), have provided all faculty with the appropriate training to teach the courses well. Each participating high school has between three and 12 seats of Mastercam.

Students learn how to draw a part in a CAD environment using SOLIDWORKS® and the Mastercam for SOLIDWORKS add-in and then need to draw upon all of their previous two to three semesters of experience to make the piece.

A large part of the success of the South Texas College program is the awareness initiative that involves educating public school administrators, counselors, teachers, and other stakeholders on the realities of 21st century manufacturing. They are invited to STEM workshops where they receive hands-on experience once per semester and learn about the importance of manufacturing to the McAllen area. “We bring them in and showed them what modern contemporary manufacturing is – high tech, high precision, clean environment – and they get excited about it.” The college also attends career fairs at elementary schools to expose the kids to manufacturing. They host a summer robotics camp for kids ages eight and older.

Located in Hidalgo County, across the Rio Grande from the Mexican city of Reynoso, McAllen has a vibrant migrant population that works primarily in low-income or agricultural jobs. The certificate and early college programs have been instrumental in providing these kids with opportunities they otherwise would never have known existed. Morales has seen his students graduate, make a living wage, buy houses, finish bachelor degrees, and move on to some pretty high-tech jobs such as making race car components or components for joint strike fighter jets. Some have moved on to other manufacturing careers unrelated to machining or programming. The point is: they have the opportunity to live the American dream.

Editor’s Note: Daniel Morales recently entrusted the program he helped build to his colleagues in order to start his own manufacturing business, showing his students another one of the great things about a career in manufacturing – the ability to start your own business and be your own boss. The program is currently led by Esmeralda Adame, Assistant Professor of Precision Manufacturing Technology.