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Tooling Up for Jobs in the Aerospace Industry

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by Nancy Leon

Kim Price wrestles with the pneumatic drill, trying to attach the drill to the hose that shoots bursts of air and takes on a life of its own. Michael Blanton laughs the laugh of a man who has already figured out how to tame this lively hose and offers hints followed by a demonstration.

"I’m riveting! It’s my first time — it’s so cool!," exclaims Kim, as she weds the hose to the drill, and holds it aloft like a prize.

She is the mother of two and a client of Oregon’s Adult and Family Services. Michael has traveled a difficult road of drug and alcohol problems and jobs that didn’t work out. Both are among sixteen students in a pilot program created by the Aerospace Industry Association of Oregon, supported by area manufacturers, funded by various government entities like Adult and Family Services and the Employment Division, and run by Portland Community College’s Customized Workforce Training department.

The aerospace industry needs trained workers. Our communities have potential workers who need training. People gather with the goal of turning potential into reality. At Davis Tool, Inc. in Hillsboro, a shop floor has been converted into a classroom with donated turret milling machines, drill presses, Computer Numeric Control milling and turning machines, tools and materials.

Instructor John Shaw patiently explains and demonstrates each step in the creation of a tool. His 30 years as a machinist combined with 20 years of teaching reveal a man who thoroughly knows what he’s doing.

"He doesn’t give up on any of us," says Michael Blanton. He offers his latest riveting project to Shaw for inspection.

"Nice work," says Shaw, and offers constructive instruction on how to improve. Looking at Blanton’s first, second and third attempts to rivet two pieces of sheet metal together reveals at once why the aerospace industry cannot hire untrained workers. The work requires practice, practice, practice.

Helen Moklebust, another trainee, was "NAFTA’d," she says, when Tyco was purchased by Mattel and manufacturing was moved to Mexico. The North American Free Trade Agreement left many workers without jobs, prompting the phrase, usually uttered with a trace of betrayal. The official phrase is "dislocated worker."

Moklebust is one of the students training for a new job in machining. After nine weeks of class, 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., five days a week, she will spend 90 days in on-the-job-training with one of the participating manufacturers. If she can do the job, she will have the job. Her starting entry level wage will be $11.00 – $13.00 per hour with benefits. Earlier attempts to learn office work left her cold. "I’m a hands on person. I like mechanics, it’s interesting!"

PCC’s John Shaw is the focus of her attention at the massive Jett turret milling machine as he demonstrates how to turn a cylinder of bright pink solid nylon into a perfect cube by cutting away layer after layer of material, fifty one-thousandths of an inch at a time.

"Try it," he says, inviting her to step up to the machine.

Slowly, with concentrated effort, Moklebust learns the touch and play of the machine. Her universe centers on the task. Her future in the industry depends on her ability to learn as much as she can in the time she is here.

"There are so many different avenues you can go. It’s an open door," she says, speaking as a person who has experienced closing doors.

The manufacturers, Davis Tool, Inc., Columbia Helicopters, Inc., Tri-Lett Industries, Inc., Peco Manufacturing, Inc., McGarry Machine, Inc., Koei America, Inc., and Triax Metal Products, Inc., are anxious to see the program succeed.

Elton Reid, vice president of Triax, is hopeful that the students his company is hiring will work out.

"It’s not an instant-gratification kind of job. It takes time to learn the skills, time to get really good."

Bill Olsen, the AIAO’s training coordinator credits the PCC team which as been "very helpful in the formation of the program and finding qualified applicants."

For Michael Blanton, the program is a "real lifesaver. I didn’t have anything to offer anybody. Now I have something."

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