Last week, Westmoreland County Community College broke ground on its new $9.4 million Advanced Technology Center in the former Sony plant near New Stanton. The college's workforce development program will move to the expanded classrooms and labs by fall 2014.
But county and college officials also hope the new center will be an incubator to help grow manufacturing businesses throughout the region.
"We are building on Western Pennsylvania's manufacturing roots," said Doug Jensen, WCCC assistant vice president for workforce education. "The entire manufacturing sector is growing in so many ways we need a different workforce and skill sets.
"Just as Pittsburgh has been an incubator for businesses in the biotech field with its universities, we want Westmoreland County to be an incubator for the manufacturing sector; we want entrepreneurs to come here. We want to serve the entire region in these emerging sectors, including energy."
The former Sony plant is huge, with about 2 million square feet of space, so there is plenty of room for startup businesses.
"It will be a regional asset for flexible, collaborative, customized job training for the area's manufacturing enterprises," said college president Daniel Obara, "providing an incentive for new employers to relocate to the [center] and nearby industrial parks."
WCCC received a $2 million grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation to buy state-of-the-art equipment at the center and a $300,000 grant from the Hillman Foundation for the center. Other funding came from a bond issue authorized by county commissioners, a state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant, several U.S. Department of Labor grants for energy education and training, the college's capital budget and private donors.
The former Sony site is now called RIDC-Westmoreland and is operated by the Regional Industrial Development Corp.
Mr. Jensen said an advisory committee of business people is important to the college's ability to adapt to rapidly changing manufacturing technologies.
Lorrie Crum, vice president for corporate relations at Kennametal Inc. in Latrobe, said the center will play an important role in connecting young people to available manufacturing jobs.
"We have a skills gap in this country," she said. "We have open manufacturing jobs but we can't find the young people with the skills to do them."
Perhaps it is a job at Kennametal's Irwin plant, which produces engineered metal components for the power connector for iPhones. Or maybe it is a job at a second Irwin plant that helps make sure a car's engine parts are tight and clean so it is energy efficient.
"We are paying a starting salary of between $40,000 and $50,000, and with [health and retirement] benefits, those jobs are valued at $65,000," she said.
Often, Kennametal will pay for employees' training, as well.
Mr. Jensen said about 600 full-time and part-time WCCC students are enrolled in technical and trades programs at the Youngwood campus. The most popular are machine tooling, welding and architectural design and drafting.
About 70 percent of students in these fields are employed by graduation, he said.
"What will be unique at this new center is flexibility and accessibility," he said. It will be flexible because it will be responsive to new industry and machines, and can configure the advanced equipment for different purposes. It will be accessible, he said, because courses and degrees will no longer start just in the fall and spring. There will be short-term certificates in specific technical areas that may last only one semester.
The 73,000-square-foot tech center will have classrooms, labs and open space, and will allow for collaborative learning on projects among welding, design and electrical engineering students, he said.
Mr. Jensen said the center will enable students to take advantage of new developments in advanced manufacturing in this region, such as "additive manufacturing," which adds layers of materials to produce a product. An example might be 3-D printing of objects.
Ms. Crum is on the WCCC Foundation Board, and on its business and industry committee.
"We are so excited about at this new Advanced Technology Center and its idea of 'stackable certificates.' Students will be able to receive training on different kinds of machines and then be certified on them."
Kennametal has about 200 employees at two plants near Irwin, and 650 employees at its headquarters and technical training center in Latrobe.
"Starting in high school, a student will be able to get his base certificate in machining," Ms. Crum said, "but then maybe he wants to go on in mechatronics, which is the use of robotics or the automating process. Or he could receive training in an additive process that is the chemical bonding of surface treatments to help components resist wear and tear."
Some of Kennametal's best engineers started out on the factory floor, she said.
"We have metallurgists who have Ph.D.s who began that way and understand the production process. And that's what our customers like -- that we understand their production process and can help them."
If the United States is going to compete globally, she said our education system needs to look to other countries, such as Germany, which is better at preparing high school students for jobs.
"In Germany, students understand that manufacturing is high tech now and these jobs pay well," she said. "Germany is better at getting high school students to see what they like and are good at to find a career."
"But here, we still have a perception problem about machining," she said. "We call it the 4 Ds -- people still think of machining as something done in dark, dangerous, dirty and dull conditions. But none of them apply today."
"Most manufacturing, whether it is a small company or large, is often high tech now," she said. "Computers control the speed of a machine that makes metal stamping pieces, for example."
Manufacturing has made a comeback since the recession, she said.
"It's not just the computer technical skills that employees need," she said, "it's people making decisions during the process ... we need students who can problem solve and trouble shoot and apply what they've learned.
"We tell them it may seem cool to work for tech giants like Google or Amazon, but you may be sitting and writing programming code all day.
"Here, you'll use those technical skills, but you'll be making real stuff, and working with people to make the landing gear on a Boeing jet."
Debra Duncan, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.