Vocational Training Center Rolls Into Northern Michigan

Vocational Training Center Rolls Into Northern Michigan
April 29, 2014

Isabel Lyman

Isabel Lyman writes from Petoskey, Michigan. (read full bio)
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The “Fab Lab,” a 44-foot trailer, is North Central Michigan College’s latest acquisition. The trailer houses a mobile digital fabrication lab and doubles as a classroom on wheels. Its purpose is to equip and help students consider a career in high-tech manufacturing and gain credits toward a college certificate or even an engineering degree.

Unveiled to the public at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Petoskey, Michigan on March 21, the Fab Lab contains 12 state-of-the-art computers loaded with SURFCAM and AutoCAD design programs, a lathe turning center, and milling equipment. Inspired by a similar mobile unit based in Appleton, Wisconsin, the lab is unique in its rural locale, offering workplace simulations and hands-on training to high school and college students in advanced machining.

Greg Chamberlin drives the Ford pickup that pulls the lab. It can effortlessly set up shop in the parking lots of area high schools, the community college, and even at local factories. Courses in the Fab Lab will start in fall 2014 and be limited to 12 students, to allow for plenty of one-on-one coaching time and interaction with the instructor.

In keeping with a popular trend, lawmakers and governors throughout the United States are aggressively promoting vocational education alternatives and voc-tech careers, including Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican. The training blends artistry with science, math, and engineering study, and can provide fulfilling careers that do not require a traditional college degree. As machining becomes less about physical labor and more about technical skill, it requires some training but not traditional academic study.

Demand from Local Employers
The lab, which cost $350,000 to fund, responds to manufacturers in the area, who are looking to hire more employees, said Carol Laenen, the communications director for North Central Michigan College.

Precision Edge Surgical Products of Boyne City and Sault Ste. Marie, and ACAT Global LLC (which has a production facility in Charlevoix, Michigan) are among the private-sector entities that partnered with the college and the nonprofit Northern Lakes Economic Alliance to bring this one-of-a-kind vehicle to fruition. Precision Edge, for instance, uses CNC systems and is eager to dramatically increase the size of its workforce in the coming years with new hires from the region.

“We can really provide training for people to start getting the jobs which those companies are going to need to fill,” notes Kevin Glines, North Central Michigan College’s director of Industrial Fabrication.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates job growth of 7 percent for computer-controlled machine tool operators from 2008 to 2018, with salaries ranging from $32,000 to $56,400.  Possible careers include programmer, computer-aided design model maker, and lathe operator.

During a recent visit to the north side of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, Snyder, who received a plaque made in the mobile fabrication lab, tweeted: “Toured the mobile digital Fab Lab in Petoskey. It’s a great tool for manufacturing training.”

Isabel Lyman

Isabel Lyman writes from Petoskey, Michigan. (read full bio)