Diane Page went to work for Steel Heddle when she was just 18, and though the work was hard and the environment was dirty, she enjoyed the job and rose through the ranks to become a lead set-up operator and supervisor. After 39 years with the company, her world shifted in 2012 when it was announced at work that the company would be sold.
Thanks to the Trade Adjustment Act, Diane had the opportunity to attend Greenville Technical College. Though she could have chosen any field, she wanted to remain in manufacturing and seeing the opportunities for machinists, she entered the Machine Tool Technology program.
Much has changed in manufacturing since Diane first went to work. Jobs require a higher skill level, and on-the-job experience must be backed up with a credential. The environment is also very different. The shop floor is clean, and though the work is still challenging, it demands more brain power than anything else. With her new degree, Diane has changed along with manufacturing, and now she looks forward to becoming part of the future in this promising field.
When Dean Shaffer-Johnson went to college the first time, he felt that a business degree from the University of Colorado wasn't going to take him where he wanted to go. So he entered the job market without finishing the program, working first in heating and air conditioning repair and later, as the co-owner of a high-end lumber company.
As lumber sales began to suffer with the recession, Dean looked for his next step. He liked working with his hands, and he had always been good with numbers and geometry. He began to notice lots of openings in the Upstate for people for CNC skills, so he looked into that career. What he discovered was something he was well suited for and a field that could provide a good living.
Reaction to his plans wasn't universally positive. In fact, when he mentioned to his Dad that he was thinking about pursuing a machining career, the response was a bit of a cringe, he said, as his Dad pictured the dirty shop floor, manual machines, and lathes of earlier years.
There's no cringe now. Dean graduated from Greenville Technical College's Machine Tool Technology program in 2013. Just a few months later, he's been promoted at ADEX Machining Technologies into a salaried programming position paying more than $60,000 a year. Jason Premo, the company's CEO, says Dean can expect to make $90,000 or more in a few years by continuing to advance his skills in 5-axis CNC programming and aerospace machining. And he loves his job, creating parts for airplanes, helicopters, and even international space stations.
Dean started at ADEX while still a student. Many times, he said, the skills he learned in class at Greenville Technical College were applied the same day in his job at the company. "In our metals and heat treating class, we talked about titanium and how it's classified. I came straight to work from school, and we were cutting titanium that day. There were a lot of times you'd learn it in class, come to work that afternoon, and apply it," he said.
A high skill level is required for this work, Dean said, and just like his Dad, many people don't realize what advanced manufacturing is all about. "Unskilled people are not going to be able to come in off the street and do this," Dean said. ""Machining has come a long way from what a lot of parents might tell their kids of what they remember from 20 to 30 years ago. In order for the U.S. to keep up with manufacturing, we have to use technology to get more precise and more intricate so that we can compete with India and China where labor costs are lower."
Dean recommends that high school students keep an open mind about what to focus on in the future. "Figure out something you're interested in and start on that path. Don't go into something just because other people tell you it's the way to go. It has to be the right field for you, but you also need to keep an open mind about the possibilities."
An open mind led Dean to the many possibilities available in advanced manufacturing industries like ADEX. Today, what Dean enjoys most about his career is the process of thinking through how to take a raw piece of metal and turn it into a part. "I get a blueprint, draw the part in SolidWorks, bring it over into Mastercam, program the mill to cut it out, send it out to the floor, and then at the end of the day, you have a tangible part you've created," he said. "There's a sense of satisfaction in working on something and having something to show for it." And because the parts he creates are used by NASA and Boeing Space, there's a good chance that his work will show up in outer space.
Five years out of high school, Brad Mullinax has finished a Machine Tool Technology degree, he's been promoted from a machinist to an engineering position with High-Tech Development Center, and he's beginning an associate degree in engineering to back up his job responsibilities. In other words, he's goal-oriented, and he's moving toward the goal quickly.
"I've followed the European way of doing things," Brad says. "Most engineers overseas do an apprenticeship with the machines. They learn how things are made in order to design things better."
Many of his high school classmates are just entering the job market. "I'm ahead, especially when I finish the Engineering Technology program at Greenville Tech. I'm pretty much guaranteed a certain income, a certain position. Some people just coming out of college don't have that. I have the comfort of knowing I have something now," he says.
Brad's attitude has helped him achieve so much so soon. While he learned a lot through his classes, he realizes that much more learning takes place on the job.
"You need to position yourself beside the oldest guy around, the one who has the most experience, and learn from him," he says. "Take the basics you learned in school, and get the know-how through the company."
Brad, whose Dad is an engineer, always knew that he wanted to land in that field eventually and that he wanted to begin in machining. The path wasn't a surprise, but the speed he's traveled on it has surprised even him.
"I wasn't a machinist but a year and a half. I was surprised to advance so quickly. I would urge anyone to go with a gut feeling about what you want to do. Give it a try, and go for it," he says.
High-Tech, which performs research and development, and Pre-Tech, where parts are made, are divisions of Precision Valve Corporation, a company that uses plastic injection molding to produce aerosol spray valves and components for cans and containers such as hair spray cans and bug foggers.
Precision Valve Corporation offers its employees a tuition reimbursement program and has given several employees opportunities using Greenville Technical College's Machine Tool Technology program and hands-on training.