Central Oregon Community College

There’s a potent epidemic currently sweeping across the nation — and the cure is, quite literally, in our hands.

“Anywhere we look across the United States, we are all facing the skills gap epidemic,” said Chris Baughman, director of Central Oregon Community College’s manufacturing program, citing a workforce shortage that’s eroding the labor and manufacturing base in America.

Carpenters, machinists, welders and a broad swath of other hands-on trades are in fast decline as waves of skilled workers from the boomer generation are retiring at a fast clip, easily outpacing their replacements. The new global economy, meanwhile, is pulling younger workers into info-based professions. And, sure, automation is changing how things get made — but it doesn’t preclude having skilled manufacturers in the workplace.

“I’ve called back eight companies this morning,” said Baughman, a former industrial welder himself, who is constantly fielding queries from regional businesses in need of quality workers. Each, he said, is trying to fill a full-time spot.

Schools like COCC are helping to address the skills gap and, with current and relevant training, are steadily moving more trained workers into their fields. “Here at COCC, we hope and strive to be that bridge and community partner to provide these skills to our future tradespeople,” he added.

At the Manufacturing and Applied Technology Center (MATC), a sprawling building that bookends the northern end of the COCC Redmond campus, the unmistakable sounds of learning — buzzes and crackles, heat on metal — spill from some of the facility’s 15 welding booths. Students are practicing laying down sturdy welds, perfecting their technique.

In the manufacturing program, the learning is self-paced. Students come and go depending on their schedule, using a checklist system to keep them on track for their certificate or degree. That system fits nicely with the needs of students, many of whom are also working jobs. Assignments — whether that means labs, videos, bookwork or other tasks — are completed when the student is ready; instructors are on hand to assist with one-on-one input.

The college offers a full toolbox of credentials. These include an Associate of Applied Science degree, and certificates in computer numerical control (CNC) machining, manual machining, industrial maintenance, manufacturing technology, quality assurance and welding.

Sonja Alridge, who graduated from COCC this year, didn’t set out to earn a welding certificate. She had a comfortable job as a CADD drafter, but imagined an opportunity that would take her beyond a desk, something with both creative and physical outlets. “I took all the shop classes back in high school,” she shared, “and remembered how much I enjoyed them. I had just planned to take a few classes for fun — but fell in love with welding and ended up going for the certificate.”

These days, she’s part of the PCC Schlosser team, a Redmond manufacturer of titanium alloy parts, where an internship — put in place before she even graduated — helped get her started as a weld finisher, grinding out imperfections. Soon, she’ll transition to welder, a position she’s thrilled to launch into.

Making the leap from drafter to welder — or taking on any new career for that matter — doesn’t happen without some trepidation. But the manufacturing education at COCC, with its flexible program design and experienced staff, allowed Alridge to build skills and confidence simultaneously.

“It was intimidating at first,” she admitted, “but Chris and the staff are always there to instruct you and help you every step of the way. By the end of the welding program, I walked around the shop with confidence that I knew how to use any welding machine, cutting tool, grinder and all the other equipment.”

Brandon Crosby, who graduated in 2017 with a CNC machining certificate, works at Bend’s ISCO Manufacturing Solutions. The company creates things for the aerospace and medical industries, among other specialties, and Crosby works a CNC waterjet, cutting parts with high-pressure water technology. Sometimes he operates a CNC lathe. “I was a chef for five years before I decided to go to school, and Dan and Chris made this transition really easy for me,” he said.

Some grads, like Ben Davies, hang out a shingle of their own. His business, Redmond Welding and Contracting, fabricates everything from brewing industry equipment to ornamental iron.

The hands-on, high-caliber training at COCC is making a difference in the lives of these and other program graduates. And their work, in turn, is making a difference in narrowing the skills gap and facing down a nationwide employment epidemic. That’s the power of manufacturing.

For more details, visit the Manufacturing program at COCC or call 541-383-7700.