BY RAYTEVIA EVANS RAY@THEITEM.COM (803) 774-1214
The mechatronics program at Central Carolina Technical College is constantly evolving - changing and improving to meet the demands of the industry that, even in trying economic times, continues to progress and expand.
After the 2012-13 school year, the college had a 92 percent job-placement rate for graduates who received degrees and certification and recently provided information that showed a 100 percent job-placement rate in multiple programs including welding and mechatronics.
CCTC continues to inform interested students about the benefits, job opportunities and long-term careers in mechatronics and has watched the program grow during the past few years.
"What's happening is that parents are also starting to get involved and take a look at the industry," said Bert Hancock, CCTC's mechatronics academic program manager. "They see it's not a bad, dirty job, but these jobs have good pay and benefits."
Decades ago, jobs in plants and factories were considered hard labor, but technology has had a tremendous impact on the industry, and businesses are almost always looking to hire certified and well-trained employees despite the country's unemployment rate, which the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics recently reported is at 6.2 percent as of July.
Back then, jobs in plant facilities and factories included an assembly line of people putting a number of products together by hand. Today, however, technology and robotics come into play, and a highly trained individual is normally hired to operate a machine to do this particular job and troubleshoot the machine if something malfunctions.
For those who are not quite sure what mechatronics is or what job opportunities are out there, CCTC Dean of Industrial and Engineering Technology Brent Russell said mechatronics has been in the making for years, combining electrical and mechanical skills that he and Hancock acquired and put to use in their years in the industry in the past. Starting out, Russell and Hancock said those in the field could be offered pay starting at $15 or $20 an hour, and some can start out with even more.
"In today's environment, employers are looking for multitalented employees with combined skills," Russell said. "There's not a company out here now that doesn't use PLCs (programmable logic controllers). Now, we improve and make changes to the program based on the recommendations of our advisory board and to meet the demands."
In the current facility, Russell said they see about 50 students in the program, and they can only accept so many students but hope to see that change in the future, especially with the addition of the soon-to-be Advanced Manufacturing Technology Training Center on Broad Street. Currently, the program is about 95 percent male students, but they hope to also encourage more women to receive training in mechatronics. They're also in the process of incorporating different brands of PLCs for specific demands in the industry.
A study released in 2012 by Pew Research Center showed that 19 percent of U.S. households had outstanding student loan debt in 2010 - the highest level ever at that time - and it continues to hit those in the younger age group. On top of the many mechatronics technology job opportunities in Sumter and across the country, Russell said the cost of attending a technical college and receiving training and certification is much more affordable than attending four-year universities. Many of their students will graduate, go directly into jobs and have little to no student loan debt.
"I'm a product of a technical college. Bert is a product of a technical college. For two years here (at CCTC), it costs about $6,000, while two years at a four-year college could cost $40,000," Russell said. "What we offer here is affordable education with the opportunities for grants and scholarships."
As they continue to tailor the program to meet the demands of the industry, Russell and Hancock said CCTC's program also focuses on meeting the immediate local demand for surrounding businesses. Students enrolled in the mechatronics program often receive paid internships or become apprentices at local businesses before receiving full employment with the same companies.
Travis Peaden, who went straight to the military and then into law enforcement, is now an apprentice with Continental Tire the Americas and in his second year of the program at CCTC. Peaden said after he finishes the program, he'll move into a full-time position at Continental. What he's doing there and training for at CCTC is similar to the work he did while in the military.
For Russell Whitaker, who's also in his second year of the program, receiving more training and certification gives him the opportunity to work toward promotion with his current employer, UTI Contract Logistics in Camden. Whitaker said he's getting prepared and receiving more training because about 30 of his co-workers are planning to retire in the next five years.
Mechatronics and similar fields such as welding offer opportunities in lucrative careers - the reason some of CCTC's students admit they enrolled, coupled with their interest in electronics. The college is also working with Sumter School District and recently created a partnership for the program STEM 10, where they will provide training at Sumter Career and Technology Center for students starting in 10th grade. Those students will continue the training for two years, and by the time they complete high school and then the program at CCTC, they'll have four years of training in preparation for the workforce.
"You're looking at getting them a lot earlier, and they'll have even more years of experience, and that's a huge advantage," Russell said. "This industry is willing to look at mechatronics students early on, and then they can look at their work habits, their work ethics and even their soft skills."
Published with permission of Sumter's daily newspaper, The Item. For more, please visit www.theitem.com.