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Training & Education

Hands-on learning

By Gretchen Salois

December 2010 - Symbol Tool Inc. opened in 1985 and as business began to decline years later, the company knew it had a lot to lose. The owner decided to transform the machine shop into a vocational school, providing job training to current employees and first-career seekers in the Chicagoland area. Since 2005, Symbol Job Training, Skokie, Ill., has produced graduates who can operate CNC machines and are eligible to earn a NIMS certificate from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills.

Symbol’s instructors separate the school from other educational facilities. Rather than simply employing teachers who are well-versed in textbook knowledge of concepts, Symbol emphasizes the need for instructors who possess real-life experience. "Professors are not people who work on the floor," says Alex Kogan, head instructor at Symbol. "They might have worked on the floor 20 years ago, but they are updating their expertise using textbooks rather than on the job." Kogan adds his own personal experience, having emigrated to the United States from Russia 32 years ago. "Russia’s government set up big plans for some of the plants I was working with. There were 30,000 people," Kogan says. "The plant had its own school--those working in the industry are also teaching the classes."

Kogan notes only one of Symbol’s instructors teaches at the school full-time. "The rest of the instructors only work part-time," he says. "These instructors manage shops, lead people in shops and can answer any questions a student might have." Instructors go through a rigorous application process where qualifications are examined closely.

"We have classes that run for four months," adds Diana Peters, executive director at Symbol. "At any given time we have approximately four classes running, with about 100 to 120 students per year." Peters explains there are a variety of classes from which students can choose. They have students who are more experienced in the manufacturing industry as well as students who have never seen CNC machines. "A large portion of our program is to place students in work," Peters adds. "So we are also supplying manufacturers to our manufacturing community."

For all ages
The faces of students attending Symbol’s classes vary, with students as young as 18 ranging to students in their mid-fifties. "It’s pretty broad," says Peters. "Of course, we want to encourage younger individuals to get into this field because there is a demand and a lot of potential for growth. It’s a great career for them to get into, and we want to change the image of what they think manufacturing is all about." Peters says Symbol makes it a point to dispel the stereotype that manufacturing is a dirty job. "Not only is that not true--everything in a machine shop is clean and organized--but more women are also getting involved in the industry," adds Peters.

Kogan agrees, saying the notion that manufacturing is a dying industry is without merit. "Manufacturing is the country’s backbone," Kogan says. "The new generation working in today’s shops aren’t trained--they were brought in by friends or family and are simply button-pushers." Kogan notes today’s manufacturers need proper training to propel the manufacturing industry forward.

When Symbol first began, the school found itself plucking students from the sparse offerings of the manufacturing sector. As time went on, more people became interested and started approaching Symbol for more information. Another area where the manufacturing industry is lacking is getting the word out to potential students. "The government thinks it [gets the word out]," says Kogan. "But it’s just talk."

"It’s not producing results," adds Peters. "We came into this industry to produce results. Symbol is established so that we can supply workers for manufacturing companies. We are here to actually do something." Peters adds that although the government talks about the need for more individuals to enter the manufacturing industry, it is not taking the additional steps to find interested parties.

Symbol’s efforts are catching on as more students find themselves commuting to Illinois from neighboring Michigan, Indiana and other surrounding areas. "We recently had someone drive in from St. Louis and stay with a friend while he took our classes," adds Peters, noting people are starting to realize Symbol is doing something different. With hands-on training from experienced instructors who are working in today’s machine shops, students are finding that the manufacturing industry offers them an opportunity for a fulfilling career. FFJ

Sources

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