By Brad Branham
The Los Angeles area has long been a major hub of America’s industry. Local shops and factories have ready access to raw materials, an efficient transportation system, and a deepwater port that provides convenient worldwide shipping. And one of the largest markets in the U.S. is right outside their doors.
New Machinists in Los Angeles
Many skilled CNC machinists, the heart of this economic engine, are trained locally – in universities, colleges, and other well-equipped and efficient institutions. One of these training centers is Van Nuys High School (VNHS), which offers students the option to explore career opportunities in manufacturing at a time when many high schools are cutting – or have already eliminated – machine shop classes. The school clearly recognizes the importance of getting students interested in manufacturing at an early age.
High Tech Lessons at Machine Tool Academy
VNHS’s Machine Tool Academy provides students with a working knowledge of high-tech machining, as well as valuable hands-on experience before they graduate. The squeaky-clean shop is newly remodeled, thanks to funds provided by state and federal grants. Its brand-new machine tools are a good combination of manual machines, two Haas CNC Mini Mills, and a Haas SL-10 CNC turning center. The Machine Tool Academy’s impressive 3-year curriculum covers machining fundamentals, the use of tools, measurement processes, and blueprint reading. Students make progressively challenging hands-on projects that reinforce the concepts they learn, and third-year students learn CNC programming, as well as SolidWorks® software.
The program has come a long way, says Instructor Charlie Wilken. “When I interviewed for a position as science instructor at VNHS,” he relates, “I was told they also had an old metal shop – closed for many years – that they would like to reopen for a couple of classes a day. It was full of all sorts of stored materials, and some pretty ancient equipment. There is a huge need for manufacturing skills, and machinist skills in particular, so I agreed to try the combined science and metal shop job for a year. That was 1989. We survived on a $500 budget and small donations from local manufacturers, along with help from the National Tooling and Machining Association (NTMA).
“In the mid ’90s,” Wilken continues, “we wrote a successful grant to help at-risk students – 50-percent boys and 50-percent girls. About that time, we added a dynamic and motivational student coordinator, Roberto Gutierrez, to the VNHS staff. His key effort was finding internships where the students could get experience working in real shops. He also called in students on a weekly basis to personally help them through the program.”
Building for the Future; Relying on the Past
The individual attention paid off, especially for Jose Castro. The former student is now the machine shop program instructor at VNHS.
Castro began teaching machining at VNHS in 2007, using his 9 years of industry expertise to train his sophomore-through-senior students. “Students start on our manual milling machines and lathe, then go on to the Haas CNC machines,” he explains. “They work on a wide variety of hands-on projects, and we also have a mentoring program to allow students to work with a local machine shop – part of one day per week – for some real-world experience. We try to expose local companies to the availability of our students. At our last open house, some representatives from area companies invited us to bring our best students to tour their facilities. That’s an opportunity for students to connect with potential employers. Also, we work closely with Los Angeles Valley College (LAVC). LAVC has many great programs for engineering and other related careers. If we can get students engaged here in high school, they will have a big advantage in college.”
Haas Automation Provides Machinery Options
LAVC’s Job Training Program Manager is Roberto Gutierrez, the former student coordinator at VNHS; he works closely with local high schools to build strong relationships.
“We have worked on cooperative projects with VNHS since 1996,” Gutierrez notes. “We share the same goals for our Career Technical Education programs: providing options so students can make educated career decisions. Thanks to Haas Automation, LAVC’s Manufacturing Technology Laboratory – a forty-foot trailer equipped with a Haas Office Lathe, Office Mill and several Haas simulators – was able to provide CNC training while the machine shop at VNHS was being remodeled.
“LAVC faculty members worked with VNHS instructors Charlie Wilken and Jose Castro,” continues Gutierrez. “They aligned curriculum and assessment methods for the manufacturing courses at both schools. Now, students who successfully complete the Manufacturing Technology Academy at VNHS will be able to petition for college credit for the Tool and Manufacturing 27 class at LAVC. This allows high school students to jump-start their college education and save money.”
Manufacturing Success in the Community
The VNHS Machine Tool Academy is the result of the hard work of many individuals committed to students and manufacturing. But for Instructor Jose Castro, a graduate of both VNHS and LAVC, it’s also a way to give back to his community. “My goal is to see my students working in the industry: programming the machine, setting up the machine, and running the parts,” Castro asserts. “I want to see them with good careers as machinists and engineers. I look forward to that.”