Instructor Matthew Graff demonstrates some mechatronic devices during a program at Clovis Community College. The manufacturing industry is increasingly looking for a workforce that is familiar with such systems. Contributed by Clovis Community College.

published on February 9, 2018 - 11:56 AM
Written by Donald A. Promnitz

Across the Central Valley, automation is making its way into manufacturing, agriculture and other industries. To meet this growing demand, schools are now training students on the ins and outs of robotics.

The latest school to offer classes geared towards robotics is Clovis Community College. Starting this week, it began offering mechanized electronics, or mechatronics, courses. Matthew Graff, the instructor for the courses, said it entails mechanical, electrical and control systems, all combined together.

“What’s attractive about that is helping people understand how those systems work together,” he said. “So if a company is hiring, they don’t have to hire two, or three, or four people to do one job, and the combining of systems and stuff like that has become more and more important as technology has been advancing.”

The seven courses being offered will focus more on industrial automation and training students to become technicians in this field. And while the systems they operate draw students’ attention and curiosity, they are the same ones that they would operate in a professional setting.

Automation on the move

While the Central Valley is typically associated with agriculture, Betts Co. CEO Mike Betts stated that the region has also brought manufacturing to the forefront of its economy in various industries.

“People would be shocked to know how much manufacturing we really have here. Manufacturing is clearly the No. 1 employer when you consider the Central Valley population because farming and agriculture is manufacturing,” Betts said. “Food and beverage is manufacturing. All the steel and plastics, bottle manufacturers and glass manufacturers, hydraulic cylinders, you name it — it’s all manufacturing.”

One company to be a part of the automation trend is Duncan Enterprises, an art-supply manufacturer in Fresno. Mike Sandoval, the director of engineering and distribution, said that their operations are mostly done using these methods.

“As far as the bottle-filling and moving, that’s all an automation process,” Sandoval said. “We’re looking into robotic packers.”

Betts added that in recent years, automation has been an increasing reality in the workplace, with workers having to take on a much wider array of tasks.

“So, in the old days — let’s just go back 15 years ago — you were informed of your area, but now, everybody’s better informed on the goals of the plant,” Betts said. “Daily goes, hourly goals, monthly goals, quarterly goals, annual goals. And it’s very much more of a team environment.”

Education starts in high schools

However, meeting the needs for more skilled and informed employers in an increasingly sophisticated field will require the workforce to become better educated.

To this end, the San Joaquin Valley Manufacturing Alliance, of which Betts is chairman, has been working with schools in the region to foster these programs. In some cases, entire schools have been set up to prepare students for a career in industrial manufacturing.

“Our vision is to build a world-class career technical educational ecosystem in our region. It means that you have incredibly robust career tech programs in the areas of manufacturing,” Betts said. “So that would include robotics, 3-D printing, engineering, design, industrial technology, electronics, all the math, the science, the physics, research and development, on and on and on.”

The Alliance has the goal of bringing these programs into all levels of schools, including high schools, community colleges and universities. Betts said that approximately $100 million in state monies and grants have gone into these ventures.

In high schools across the Valley, investments in technology, robotics and mechatronics are gaining in popularity in regional high schools. Other schools, like the Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART) in Clovis and the Career Technical Education Charter in Fresno (CTEC) are offering students dual enrollment, giving them a leg-up when entering college to study automation and mechatronics.

“Kids really have three options: they can come out right away and do our partnerships with industry, or the businesses we’ve got connections to, be employed and get a job, or they can continue on and work within our partnership if they want to go into more depth in whatever it is that they’re doing,” said Jonathan Delano, director of CTEC. “Or they got 60 units of college credits completed and they can head over to Fresno State or Cal Poly, or something like that.”

Opportunities at Amazon

With students training for jobs in the manufacturing field in the Valley, there appear to be increased opportunities for students to find work locally. On the warehouse end, this includes a new distribution center near Central and Orange Avenues in Fresno that will be built by Amazon.

“I—as we’ve been marketing the program, had someone call up and say: ‘Well, I looked and Amazon was hiring industrial automation technicians,’” Graff said. “’Next day, I heard about your advertisement and I’m interested in your program.’”

Graff added that with cheaper equipment and an increased minimum wage, more and more companies are looking into automation in their industries. With this, there will be an increase in multifaceted employees to fill these positions. This is especially true as it will require fewer people to get their products out.

“We’re running very lean here,” Sandoval said. “And that’s why we want to continue going into automation.”

Betts, meanwhile, pointed out the opportunities that a career in manufacturing can present for a skilled employee.

“These are great jobs,” Betts said. “They’re middle class jobs that offer a good standard living and great upward mobility.”


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