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Manufacturing course opens Knoch students' eyes

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Sunday, March 9, 2014, 12:06 a.m.

With a dearth of skilled workers to fill manufacturing jobs, seeing a group of Knoch High School students animated about learning precision manufacturing concepts gives Penn United Technologies training coordinator Scott Covert reason to be optimistic.

“This is teaching them the skills they're going to need to get a job right out of high school or to go to college,” he said.

Seven senior boys signed up for a semester-long online course during which they'll visit Penn United, a precision manufacturer in Jefferson Township, four times for an all-day assessment and hands-on learning.

“They're doing just as well or better than some of our apprentices,” Covert said.

High school principal Todd Trofimuk said the course attracted a diverse section of students. Some of them aren't sure what they want to do after graduation, while others are set on a career in engineering or a related field.

“Coming to Penn United gives them the idea that everything they learned is meaningful,” Trofimuk said.

South Butler School District piloted the course this term and has added it to the curriculum for next school year.

Trevor Guercio, 18, a Knoch senior, said he signed up for the course because he wants to earn an engineering degree.

“It's better than a day at school,” he said. “I'm more of a hands-on learner anyway.”

His rationale is that, if he goes into the civil engineering field, the class experience is going to help him.

“You might get into something and someone says, ‘build me this part,' ” Guercio said. “Are they going to hire someone who milked cows for six years in high school or someone who says ‘I did this course, I know how to work this machine'? ”

It appears that Guercio is on the right track.

A 2012 analysis conducted by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and the Energy Alliance of Greater Pittsburgh found that there's a shortage in skilled laborers and engineers.

That shortage is likely to continue unless more is done to interest people in the jobs and train them.

The report highlighted the fact that energy-industry jobs are abundant in the region and will continue to be through 2020 as people retire, get other opportunities and new positions are created.

Of the 14 high-demand, hard-to-fill occupations identified in the report, all but one require certification or education beyond a high school diploma.

And many of them require skills the Knoch High School students are learning. They include machinists, mechanical engineers and computer-controlled machine tool operators.

“Manufacturing has advanced quite a bit in requirements and worker competence to do the various components, and that has left a gap between what people's skills are and the jobs that are needed,” said Jeannine Kunz, managing director of workforce and education at Tooling U-SME, a Cleveland-based company that offers online manufacturing training based on industry standards to high schools, community colleges and companies.

“There's not one part of the country that doesn't have that,” she said. “For certain job functions, it's even a larger issue. Machining, maintenance and welding are some of the hardest-hit areas in terms of the skills gap.”

Penn United has 35 apprentices but still struggles to find workers to fill open positions, Covert said. That's why partnerships like that between South Butler and Penn United are important.

“It helps the community because then they have more skilled workers,” he said.

The Knoch High School students' training takes place in the L.I.G.H.T. (Learning Institute for the Growth of High Technology) training center that Penn United's apprentices use.

The training area is equipped with the same machinery that workers use on the machine shop floor, including grinders, an optical computer used for quality inspection and a CNC (computer numerical control) machine.

The CNC, which is about 20 feet long and 6 feet high, cuts parts according to computer codes that tell the machine what the design looks like and the movements needed to make it.

In the training room, students use blue machinable wax instead of steel because it eliminates the need for cooling and water.

The Knoch students eventually will have the opportunity to use the machines and learn how they operate.

During the students' February visit, they went over some of the math concepts they had learned and practiced technical drawing.

Each was handed a wooden block and given the assignment to draw a front, side and rear view to scale.

The students also are learning to read blueprints, math concepts common to the industry and how to use machine shop tools such as a micro­meter, a gauge that looks similar to a C-clamp that measures small distances or thickness.

Knoch senior Vlad Marharytov, 17, said he's enjoying the class.

“It's a good way to test your brain and get a little bit of hands-on experience,” he said.

Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4702 or



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