Aliquippa summer camp opens new world to students
By Marsha Keefer, The Times
Learning about career opportunities in the manufacturing industry is the purpose of the pilot Titans of Pittsburgh Summer Program developed by Catalyst Connection and Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ.
MOON TWP. — Students, most of them from Aliquippa, gathered Wednesday at a robotic work cell in an engineering lab at Robert Morris University’s John Jay Center for the School of Engineering, Mathematics and Science.
For most, it was a seminal moment. The two previous days, they sat at computers at the Family Life Center housed in the Church in the Round in Aliquippa, and used software to design a product. Now, those drafts would be programmed into a computer-controlled milling machine to carve their designs in a rectangular block of aluminum — a process that took all of seven minutes.
What had been merely a concept would come to life.
Most of the 23 students enrolled in the four-day summer camp — high school juniors and seniors and a few recent graduates — had never worked with computer-aided design (CAD) programs and certainly not computer numerical control (CNC) routers, said Scott Dietz, director of workforce initiatives at Catalyst Connection, an economic development organization based in Pittsburgh that helps small- to medium-sized manufacturers improve competitive performance.
“We’re seeing sparks happening already this week in the few days we’ve had with them,” he said. “We’re seeing light bulbs going off. The students are seeing stuff they haven’t been exposed to before. We think the program is definitely a success.”
Essentially, learning about career opportunities in the manufacturing industry, is the purpose of the pilot Titans of Pittsburgh Summer Program developed by Catalyst Connection and Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ, a manufacturing workforce development program that engages high school students in robotics competitions to stimulate interest in manufacturing careers.
Catalyst Connection works with 2,800 manufacturing companies across 12 counties in western Pennsylvania, Beaver County included, Dietz said.
“When we go in their doors, the first thing they tell us when we ask ‘what is their biggest pain point’ is workforce — lack of workforce,” he said.
Dietz estimated 30 percent of the current workforce will retire in the next 10 years and that’s compounded by the large number of job needs now.
“We recently did a survey of 100 of those manufacturers who told us they have 2,300 job openings,” he said. Extrapolating those numbers, Catalyst Connection projects a shortage of about 20,000 workers, Dietz said.
One of the top jobs in demand is CNC machining, followed by CAD.
On the low end of the pay scale, a machinist makes $15 an hour, said Gabe Cottrell, an RMU laboratory engineer, “to well over $30 to $40 an hour,” depending on the complexity of the milling job.
Aliquippa, once a manufacturing epicenter, was home to the former Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., which stretched seven miles along the Ohio River and employed 14,000.
Ironically, most of the students in the summer camp “never considered manufacturing before, never saw manufacturing before,” Dietz said. “We definitely have a bit of a skills gap when it comes to aligning to these careers, but we also have an awareness gap. We have that gap of not knowing if we still make stuff here in southwestern Pennsylvania or in the United States for that matter. The assumption a lot of students have is that stuff is made overseas now or stuff just magically appears. They don’t think about how it’s made.”
Catalyst Connection and BotsIQ partnered with Aliquippa’s Family Life Center to present the immersive learning experience, similar to one it offered the week before at the University of Pittsburgh’s Manufacturing Assistance Center in Homewood. Thirteen high school juniors and seniors from Allderdice, City Charter and Kiski Prep schools attended.
Church in the Round recruited students for the Aliquippa camp from its church and community contacts. Next year, Dietz said there will be more opportunity for advance promotion and recruitment from local schools.
Family Life Center functions as a community-based change agent and the camp was a perfect fit, said Daryl Milliner Sr., a member of the center’s leadership group and president and CEO of Daryl Milliner Media, an advertising and multimedia agency.
The center’s vision, he said, is to “make sure we have financial literacy, home ownership, educational equity and self-reliance. We try to deal with the entire person in the community. It’s not just come to church and praying together,” but also focusing on “strengthening families, improving housing, educational equity, healthy lifestyle. … We do want to make a positive impact in the lives of these kids.”
Aliquippa is known for football, but Milliner said “we’re more than football, more than cheerleading. We’re trying to give kids an opportunity — ‘let me start thinking in the direction of what I want to do in my career and start now.’”
Camp instructors leveraged an educational platform developed by Titan Gilroy of California who presents his CNC “building blocks” via a series of 10 free, online videos designed for 3-axis mills.
The objective, according to his website, is to “teach students how to design, program and complete parts that meet print specifications.”
Gilroy’s back story is impressive. He grew up in a broken home, ultimately landing in prison for assault charges. After release, he boxed professionally for awhile before finding a job at a CNC machine shop that changed his life.
He now owns his own business TITANS of CNC Inc. in Rocklin, Calif., that makes machined parts for specialized industries, including SpaceX and Blue Origin, according to his LinkedIn profile. He also produced and starred in TITANS of CNC, a reality TV series on MAVTV.
Dietz said Gilroy’s video-based academy has 80,000 subscribers.
The advantage of the concept is that even though the camp is over, “kids can continue using those (videos) and go forward and keep doing more stuff if they want,” he said, because they will continue to have free access to the software.
Camp costs and a stipend for campers — $8.25 an hour for each participant — were covered by financial support from the Benedum Foundation, Chevron Corp. and Shell Corp. through a “summer earn-and-learn” model. Donations of tools and raw materials were provided by Kennametal, MSC Direct, and Metal Supermarkets.
Hunter Sasse of Pittsburgh, camp instructor, was a good role model for students, Dietz said.
The 20-year-old’s grandparents owned a construction company in Illinois where Sasse said he “grew up reading blueprints.” His parents eventually moved to Pittsburgh.
Sasse’s eighth-grade math teacher recognized his math and science aptitude and suggested he consider engineering as a career. Sasse attended Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, a public high school in Oakland, where he excelled in 3-D printing and CAD.
When it came time for college, however, Sasse said he wasn’t certain it was the best choice for him.
Money, for one, was an issue.
Instead, he enrolled in a six-month training program at New Century Careers on Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood that develops a skilled manufacturing workforce where students learn the basics of lathes, vertical milling and CNC machines.
Last week, Sasse said he was offered a CNC machining job with Aerotech, a firm in O’Hara Township that designs motion-control systems.
“I know a lot of people say college is the only way to get a job these days,” Sasse said, but “college isn’t the only option. … All they really need is confidence and a little time.”
Sasse said he felt good knowing his students learned something new.
Among them was 16-year-old Tynaria Ruff of Aliquippa, who’ll be a junior at Reach Cyber Charter School, a tuition-free, K–12 online public school headquartered in Harrisburg.
“She’s a superstar young woman who’s tearing it up right now,” Dietz said.
Ruff said she’s had previous experience in 3-D printing, computers and electronics, but CAD and CNC were new.
“I learn really quick,” she said.
After taking the summer camp and seeing the end results, “I was satisfied,” she said, and hopes this will lead to a career.
“I’m really impressed at what she’s done,” Sasse said.
Another student, Nia Whitehead, 18, a recent graduate of Aliquippa High School, who will be attending Jacksonville State University in Alabama to major in nursing, said the camp was a “really good experience and everybody was really nice.”
Her only wish was that classes “were longer than a week.”
Campers also made field trips to VEKA Inc. in Marion Township that makes vinyl windows, doors, PVC deck board and outdoor living products, and to Beaver County Career & Technology Center in Center Township.
It was an opportunity to see “what the real world of manufacturing looks like,” Dietz said.
Project organizers will now review the past two weeks to see “how we grow from here,” he said.
Possibilities include working with the Aliquippa School District to offer after-school programs or a class elective at the high school.
“There are a lot of possible directions to go from here,” he said.
Milliner envisions offering similar programs to adults looking to change career paths.