Mention vocational training and most people envision classes in auto mechanics, welding, construction, nursing and cosmetology.
While those remain a critical aspect of career education, Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, at its InTech Center in Fontana, is offering industrial training classes that are a little unusual in that they prepare students for careers in the warehouse and logistics industry, instructors and program managers said.
The names of these intensive classes: robotics, mechatronics and PLCs — the latter stands for programmable logic controllers — don’t roll off the tongue. They are part of a new wave of vocational training offerings funded by a recent $500,000 grant that’s drawing more and more students.
“Yes, these warehouses are fully automated,” Vincent Zurowski, instructor at the InTech Center in Fontana, said Friday, March 25. “But there are jobs there. They are not just driving the forklift around.”
Many groups criticize logistics jobs, saying there are fewer than advertised, they don’t pay a living wage and can be tedious.
However, Zurowski, 56, who retired from Frito-Lay in Connecticut and later from the company’s warehouse in Rancho Cucamonga as an automated PLC controls technician, says there is a niche for mid-level technician jobs tasked with repairing and incidental programming of warehouse robotic machinery.
Warehouses owned by Amazon, Target and many other companies in the Inland Empire and beyond use automated conveyor systems that require people who can work on them, he said.
“We give the students all the tools they need to understand them, maintain them and repair all of these electromechanical systems,” he added.
Students earn certificates from the state Division of Apprenticeship Standards upon completion. The Automation, Robotics and Mechatronics (ARM) Pre-Apprenticeship program graduates often are placed in jobs with an average starting wage of $25 an hour, Sandra Sisco, director of economic development and of the InTech Center, said March 17.
The $500,000 grant for the program was awarded by the California Community College Chancellor’s Office last month, Sisco said. Previously, the InTech Center received $1.2 million for similar programs, she said, making this grant the third in a series.
On Tuesday, March 22, the Chaffey College Governing Board unanimously approved the latest grant. Students can learn more about the program and register for online information sessions taking place Thursday, March 31, or Tuesday, April 5, at www.intechcenter.org. Both informational sessions run from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
The money will fund the ARM program classes, which begin May 31 and are expected to enroll 100 students in an intensive, 40-hour per week, three-month training program, Sisco said. The grant money may support up to three classes in a year, she said.
At first, the program was a hard sell but it has grown by word of mouth, Sisco said.
“Parents never say ‘I want my kids to grow up and work in a warehouse,’” Sisco said. “Those are the last places people think about for a career. We dispel that myth. Manufacturing is no longer dark and dirty.”
ARM students can use the class to target a specific job as a robotics worker, or what is known as a mechatronics technician at a warehouse or manufacturing facility, she said. Or, they can enroll in a degree program at Chaffey College and possibly go on to a four-year school such as Cal Poly Pomona for an engineering or computer science bachelor’s degree.
Warehouse industry companies usually are more interested in a potential employee’s skill set than a college degree, Sisco said.
The students in Zurowski’s classes range from 18 to 56, he said. Some are recent high school graduates, while many others are returning students who work in lower-paying jobs and see the program as a way to move into better, higher-paying positions.
“We have students who’ve tried college and didn’t like it,” he said. “Some have been in the workforce doing labor-intensive work that they don’t enjoy.”
Previous versions of the program dating back four years have resulted in students getting placed in warehouse jobs, she said. In 2021, the InTech center placed 100 graduates into industrial-electronic jobs, Sisco said.
“Because of the pandemic, distribution warehouses have boomed. But there was already a shortage of these technicians in manufacturing, now especially in warehouses where they use robotic arms for moving packages and where conveyor belts are run by automated equipment,” she said.
Warehouses need on-site personnel who can repair machines when they break down, in order to sustain production levels, she said. Sisco compared the mechatronic technician to someone understanding computers in automobiles and high-tech appliances.
“It is like the next generation of maintenance mechanic,” Sisco said.