Workforce training at its core

Image: Rice Fruit Co.

Next time you think of Gettysburg, think apples.

The historical town known for its Civil War tourism is also a major agriculture and manufacturing hub. And HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, is there to help develop a skilled workforce for those industries and others.

Adams County, where Gettysburg is located, is the top apple producer in Pennsylvania and No. 4 in the country. Knouse Foods and Rice Fruit Company do big business around apples. Rice, for example, receives, stores, packages and markets fruit from more than 40 local family farms.

The family-owned business has been around since 1913, but it taps the latest technology to ensure a quality product. For example, Rice uses hyperspectral imaging to detect imperfections on fruit, such as bruising, discoloration or insects.

Rice looks, in part, to HACC to develop a workforce with the skills needed to run such machines, as well as to broader skills.

“The problem-solving skill set is what’s most important,” said Danijel Lolic, engineering manager at Rice.

For Rice and other companies, guaranteeing the quality and safety of their products is paramount, but finding qualified employees has been difficult. Adams County has the lowest unemployment in the state. At any time, there are 3,000 job openings in the area. Add to that declining numbers of high school graduates and an aging workforce, and there’s a serious issue.

Meeting workforce needs

Enter HACC’s mechatronics program at the Gettysburg campus. The program was created with direct input from industry partners. Now in its third year, the two-semester program gives students skills to maintain, repair and manage automated systems and machines. Each cohort of 15 students not only get hands-on education, but also has opportunities for facility tours, paid internships and a near guarantee of employment after finishing the program.

“This is the exact pipeline companies need,” said HACC President John “Ski” Sygielski.

There’s been an unprecedented level of employer involvement, according to Vic Rodgers, HACC’s associate provost for workforce development.

“Their lifeline is production,” Rodgers said. “They want to be in the forefront of the discussion.”

Rice has taken on three HACC students as interns and sees the benefit of partnering with HACC.

“The quality of the program and the student has come through,” Lolic said. And professional skills, such as the ability to communicate and understanding each role within the organization, are evident in HACC students, too. “This program is exactly what our company needs.”

Alesia Reese, the employee relations manager at Knouse Foods, agrees.

“Students come out with not only technical skills, but the right personality,” she said.

It helps that HACC’s mechatronics instructor, Rich Hebel, has nearly 50 years of combined industry and teaching experience. He meets with local employers a couple times a year to make sure training remains relevant.

“This program was designed around industry,” Hebel said.

Recruiting students

Mechatronics has attracted a variety of people: those straight out of high school, those hoping to advance in their current careers and those “lost” students — or high school graduates who don’t have an immediate college or career plan.

For student Mark, who has worked in the mining for 15 years, the program is helping him advance in his current job.

“I want to grow into a manager position,” he said. “That requires a two-year degree.”

HACC’s mechatronics program is the first step, and it’s paid for by his employer.

Students in the mechatronics program at HACC’s Gettysburg campus include recent high school graduates as well as older learners updating their skills or preparing for a new career.

Recruiting students starts early. The college works to first “demystify the college experience” for both high school students and their parents, Rodgers said. There also is the work of dispelling myths about manufacturing. It helps that the pay is good; a technician has the earning potential of more than $45,000 a year.

And, as technology evolves, “the work is a lot sexier than it used to be,” Lolic said.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.