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Not Your Father's Shop Class: CPI is thriving, as it teaches technology for the future

by on March 01, 2018 9:09 AM

Dr. Richard Makin puts it this way when talking about what’s going on these days at the Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology: “This is not your old vo-tech shop class.”

Instead, students at CPI in Pleasant Gap are learning the skills needed for today’s high-tech jobs, says Makin, the school’s president.

“There are technology jobs that are high-skill,” he says. “We are teaching kids skills to get the jobs that are out there.”

The jobs out there in construction, machinery, or automotive repair require training, Makin says. Maybe in the past a student could graduate from high school and head to a construction company or a factory and get a good job. These days those jobs often require more skills and training. Makin likens the idea to working on your car.

“Used to be that most people could go under the hood and work on their own car, but not now,” he says. “Everything is computerized, and more technical. You have to know what you are doing. Same thing with most jobs out there. You need some training, you have to know what you are doing with the technology. That is what we are giving our students.”

The students who attend CPI may not be what you think.

There has been a change in the way people view technical education over the past 10 to 15 years, Makin says. Technical education is now seen as a gateway for bright students to start their career training early.

“Parents, students, and maybe most importantly employers see tech-ed as a step toward a bright future. Times have changed and we are at the heart of it,” Makin says.

The precision machinery shop is a good example of this change. The shop is large and clean, with gigantic machines intended to shape and cut metal into the tools and products we use every day. These machines are technical and require training and math skills. And the jobs are out there.

“I had eight students in my class last year graduate,” instructor Benjamin Detwiler says. “And six went on to get jobs in the field, one moved on to college, and one went to a technical school. The kids who come here, they are usually good students who want to find a career and do a good job.”

The building is bustling throughout the day and evening. High schoolers from Bellefonte, Bald Eagle Area, and Penns Valley ride a bus over for a half day of technical training as part of their course work to graduate. These students have options, according to Makin.

“They have the tools to head to the work force. Many of them receive certificates and training that business are looking for,” he says. “Some of our students head off to a traditional four-year college, and are well exulted for that. And some take their training further and attend a technical college to attain an associate degree or diploma. It really is about options, the best options.”

Intermingled with the high schooler throughout the day and in the evening, adult students looking to find new skills work toward associate degrees or certification programs in many different fields. The adult programs are intensive and take a set amount of time, looking to be as cost-effective for the students as possible. Financial aid is available.

CPI also trains workers in short courses to get them up to speed with new technology that is required in their field.

“All jobs are tech jobs these days, so these students come in and take a course, sometimes over a few weeks and get caught up to speed with what their employers need,” Makin says. “Training is important and we do it well.”

From nursing to dental technician and from solar technician to water utility operator, CPI offers a wide variety of courses in fields that require training and certification. One of the more popular programs at CPI is in heavy machinery, and it is offered for adults and high-schoolers.

“It really has the wow factor, getting to use those powerful machines,” says Luann Bruno, adult and student specialist at CPI. “I just can’t imagine being a high school student and getting a chance to work all those machines.”

Imagine being a 14-year-old student who is too young to drive a car, looking up at a bulldozer, and your teacher asks you with confidence to hop in and get to work. You get in and fire up the huge machine with its massive engine and powerful tools. Most adults would be intimidated, but you know exactly what to do because you have spent hours learning to use the machine in a simulation that prepared you for this moment. That is all part of the learning process at CPI.

The simulators are housed in the newly renamed Hawbaker Transportation Center. Opened in 2013, the building houses the diesel mechanic program, the CDL program, and heavy equipment. The center was renamed this January in honor of the founders of Glen O. Hawbaker Inc. after the company made more than $1 million in donations to the school through the years. It is the first building to be named in honor of a donor at the school.

“My parents would have never imagined anything like this was possible from where they started, but it is an honor that we are really proud of, and wasn’t something that we expected,” company president and CEO Dan Hawbaker said at the dedication in January.

Hawbaker said that when he was growing up, his parents taught him how to run a construction company. 

“They were my CPI, they taught me, just like the students here are learning. We are glad to be a part of it.”

In the CDL program, also in the Hawbaker Transportation Center, new drivers have the ability to learn the way of the road while in the safety of a classroom. Drivers sit in front of a large screen and encounter situations they might see on the road. In one scene, a dog jumps out in front of the driver, later a driver makes an improper turn, and then suddenly a pedestrian walks across the street. Instructor Dave Priester explains how this prepares students for real-life situations, while giving them a stress-free place to learn.

“The simulators help cut down on the wear and tear of our vehicles, that is for sure,” he says. “But more importantly, we can prepare for any type of situation without the risk. For example, we don’t want to put new students out in bad weather without some training, so this gives them a chance to practice safely.”

The nature of technology is that it is always changing. Today’s big trend become tomorrow’s old news. To stay ahead of the curve, CPI works with companies in the field to provide training that will have legs. Caterpillar, Hawbaker, and Cisco are just a few of the high-profile business that have invested in CPI through donations or work-study programs. These connections help the students find a place in their fields and help the school stay in tune with the latest trends.

Adult students are encouraged to spend part of their training in the field working with local companies, in an internship-type position for credit at the school.

“This benefits the student in many ways. They make connections, they learn in the real world and see how the pros do it,” Makin says. “But it benefits our programs as well. Maybe there is something that we are missing in the classroom. Then our student can come back and help teach it to others here at CPI. It is a huge benefit for all involved."

A new effort that looks to help students in an emerging field is the natural gas compressor program. With the emergence of natural gas pipelines across the state, the jobs growth in the field is strong, Makin says. The program teaches students how to operate and maintain the compressors that pipe the gas along pipelines.

“These are long-term jobs that will be around,” Makin says. “We tried to focus on that when we looked at natural gas. Sure there are jobs for a time in the drilling operations, but they only last for so long. We want to give our students long-term success.”

Because of the tie-in with the local public schools and the partnerships with many local and national business, CPI is home to top-notch facilities and teachers, and is looking to expand. 

Already training licensed nurses, a new building is in the works to train students in the medical tech field. The school hopes to have the building open in 2020.

“These, are high-tech jobs that are in demand everywhere. You can go to around the world and medical tech jobs are needed,” Makin says.

The state is putting more emphasis on technical training, according to Makin.

“Now more than ever, businesses are looking for students with technical skills, and they’re willing to hire these well-trained kids right away,” Dolores McCraken, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said recently. “That’s why these programs have always been a good investment.”

Makin sees a bright future.

“These are good, high-paying jobs that we are training our students for. They can get life started without debt, without a hindrance on their future.”

Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.


Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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