RANDOLPH CENTER — Vermont Technical College unveiled its new Advanced Mobile Manufacturing Lab at the Manufactured in Vermont trade show, Sept. 27, at the Champlain Valley Expo Center in Essex Junction. The lab will bring a mobile laboratory and teachers to all corners of the state that will focus on developing skills needed in today’s high-tech manufacturing industry.
“The current skills gap we have in manufacturing is only (exaggerated) in Vermont by our rural nature,” said Chris Gray, who is assistant project manager for the lab, and also building the mobile lab at his home in Springfield. The lab will be housed in a renovated, 24-foot, towed trailer and will serve up to eight students. In addition, all the equipment can be rolled from the trailer to a larger facility if needed, to accommodate more students.
Gray, an assistant professor for manufacturing and mechanical engineering technology at Vermont Tech, said one concern he has heard repeatedly from Vermont’s manufacturers is that the state college offers programs at its main campus in Randolph Center and satellite campus in Williston, but the need for training is everywhere in the state. The mobile lab is an attempt to solve that problem. “We’re bringing high-tech to you,” he said.
The trailer will be equipped with computer numerical control machines, such as a turning center, which is a lathe that machines cylindrical parts, and a three-axis milling machine that machines flat, parallel and square parts. It also features CAD (computer-aided design) enabled computers, and metrology equipment. The trailer will be moved throughout the state to bring an advanced manufacturing apprenticeship to eligible students and incumbent manufacturing employees.
The trailer has a 7,000 pound curb weight when full and can be pulled by a half-ton pickup or large SUV.
The mobile lab is part of a much larger project that Vermont Tech started last year to provide training and education to prepare unemployed and underemployed Vermonters to qualify for better-paying jobs in industries relevant to Vermont’s growth, said Beth Demers, VTC’s project manager for continuing education and workforce development. Last year, Vermont Tech received a $4 million, four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Labor’s training and education program that focuses on the advanced manufacturing industry.
The project, known as Strengthening Working Families Initiative, or SWFI, provides no-cost training and support services to eligible parents who are seeking a livable-wage job with benefits in the manufacturing sector. The program includes training and coaching, and helps the students find, and sometimes pay for, child care and transportation.
“Parents have a lot of barriers that come into play when they are training and entering employment, specifically around child care,” Demers said. “We are putting the training and support services in place to help them get ahead. SWFI is breaking down barriers for working families to succeed in training and employment.” SWFI students are the target audience for the mobile lab.
To qualify for the SWFI program, the student must be at least 17 years old, a custodial parent of one or more children 13 years or younger, or have at least one child with a disability or developmental delay who is older than 13. They must be eligible to work in the U.S., and must not currently be working in manufacturing unless through a temp agency. The project goal is to enroll 400 students.
Vermont Tech is working closely on the SWFI project with the Community College of Vermont and Vermont Adult Learning to create career pathways for the students. Support services are provided by Working Bridges and a partnership with the Vermont Child Development Division. Participants undertake customized individual assessments to identify training needs, as well as to identify barriers to successful education, training and employment.
Vermont Tech is developing two college level apprenticeships that are accessible for working families. The first is in advanced manufacturing, the second is industrial maintenance. “We have created flexible, stackable credentials that allow our students to gain skills and employment, and then come back for further skills obtainment,” Demers said.
The mobile lab is part of Vermont Tech’s ongoing effort to meet the ever-changing needs of Vermont’s manufacturers, said Amanda Chaulk, director of marketing and communications for Vermont Tech. To make sure Vermont Tech’s programs stay relevant, the college has organized several advisory boards composed of representatives from various Vermont manufacturers. “We ask them what they need,” Chaulk said, and then give them what they want.
Equally important, Chaulk said, is the professional experience of the faculty. “While also being professional instructors, many of the faculty also have vast professional experience. A few examples are Ralph Esposito, the chair of our Electrical/Electromechanical Engineering Technology Department, and his 30 years working with IBM, or Scott Sabol, professor in the Architectural Engineering Technology program, who is also a member of the governor-appointed Board of Engineers for the state of Vermont, or Mary O’Leary, the chair of Civil & Environmental Engineering Technology, who ran her own engineering consulting firm and has spearheaded permitting projects for the college since her tenure began at the college. These types of experiences and connections to industry help inform the curriculum of our programs.”
The mobile teaching lab was funded, in part, by a $15,000 grant from Vermont Community Foundation’s Innovations and Collaborations program which, in June, awarded $235,549.92 to 17 Vermont nonprofit organizations.