The Upside of Upskilling

The Precision Machining Program at NCC gives students the chance to acquire new skills and enter a new career track.

E.J. Goudy,

Olu Stewart hails from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, a twin-island country that is the southernmost nation of the West Indies in the Caribbean, just off the coast of Venezuela. In search of a better life, he traded the tropical climate and northeast trade winds for a shot at something better in the United States.

His first experiences in New York and New Jersey felt unfamiliar to him and nothing like home. A move to the Lehigh Valley changed that.

“It’s so friendly here it reminds me of Trinidad where everyone knows each other,” Stewart says. “The Lehigh Valley is more laid-back and family-oriented.”

That friendliness is one of the reasons why Stewart not only wanted to live in the Lehigh Valley, he wants to work here, too. Commuting back and forth to his airline industry job in Newark, New Jersey, left little free time to spend with his wife Sidelle and their three active boys.

“It is a good job with good benefits, but it was time to move on,” Stewart said about the job he held for 12 years. Not only was the commute wearing, but the outdoor job exposed him to the elements and was physically demanding. “It doesn’t seem like a good long-term option,” he said.

Plus, Stewart was interested in more than just a job, he wanted a career. “I used muscle and brawn in my job but I always wanted a skill.” So when his wife brought home a flier from her workplace about a free Precision Machining Program at NCC, Stewart decided to enter the program. “You have to keep learning to better yourself,” he said.

Stewart is grateful for the support of his wife, family, teachers and classmates who have been “positive and encouraging.” He also mentions the flexibility of the skills he has developed, saying, “You can take machining anywhere in the world.”

Stewart is not alone in his quest for new skills. Many others have undergone career transition or upskilling through NCC’s certification and training opportunities. Upskilling describes the process through which workers acquire new workplace skills that can help them advance in their careers or take on new roles and responsibilities. It makes them more valuable to their organization and more highly sought after in the broader job market.

Lauren Loeffler, vice president of workforce development and community education and the dean of NCC’s Fowler Family Southside Center, says that in learning a skilled trade like welding or machining, people can gain certification or knowledge to make them qualified to enter a new field or upskill themselves for a promotion. Many local employers are looking at upskilling people to retain their top talent.

“People have so many different reasons for entering NCC’s programs,” Loeffler says. “Sometimes a person will lose a job or need a change, they’re not making enough money or they’re burned out at their current workplace.”

Machining offers stable employment and Loeffler refers to a Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation report that forecasts that during the next five years, the replacement demand for manufacturing employees, including machinists, is expected to grow to 12,000 positions in the Lehigh Valley. “There is great demand and opportunity for skilled workers in these fields,” she said. “In fact, the annual mean wage for machinists is over $20 an hour and there is often a great opportunity for overtime pay.”

NCC partners with PA CareerLink and Lehigh Carbon Community College for the 300 hours of classroom time students are required to complete for the precision machining program. Machine shops are located at the Lehigh Career Technical Institute adjacent to the LCCC campus and the Career Institute of Technology in Forks Township. The training is offered free of charge thanks to a Strategic Innovation Fund grant provided by Workforce Board Lehigh Valley and the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry to those who qualify.

Marsha Stiles, NCC’s precision machining program manager, says that the academic and skills part of the program includes “learning how to operate machinery, blueprint readings, applied math and safety in the shop.” Students also learn employability skills such as workplace etiquette, team building, resume writing and professional communication. Initially working on manual machines, students learn basic skills and then move on to become familiar with the CNC (Computerized Numerical Control) machine and its operation.

For Olu Stewart, his training in precision machining means the chance at a position that no longer requires working outside in every type of weather. And while there are physical aspects to machining, it is not as grueling as his previous position in air transportation. “I knew I couldn’t do it for another 20 years,” he says, in anticipation of gaining a machining position with a local company. He is also particularly looking forward to a shorter commute and spending more time with his wife and children in the friendly Lehigh Valley he now calls home.

[Published in the Summer 2019 Northampton Community College Magazine.]