NMC’s $2.1 Million Grant: The impact of the largest program equipment grant in NMC’s history is opening up new world for students and vocational industries

When Northwestern Michigan College begins its new associate degree in welding technology later this month, it’ll be thanks in part to something that transpired two and a half years prior: A major state grant for equipment toward skilled-trades training.

The nearly $2.1 million grant, aimed at helping prepare students for in-demand skilled trades jobs, was the largest program equipment grant in NMC history. And it’s unfolded throughout areas of the college, subsidizing technology purchases that have benefited students and NMC alike — in the air and under water, and in electronics, computer information technology, nursing and elsewhere.

The grant’s overall impact has “been huge,” said NMC technical division director Ed Bailey. “It gave us an opportunity to do so much that we might not otherwise be able to purchase. It probably gave us a seven to 10-year jump on what otherwise we would be able to do.”

The ripple effects are many: Programs have expanded, with some gaining national prominence and visibility; students’ learning experiences are richer; and there’s draw and interest in what NMC and skilled trades can offer, among the public, industry and prospective students, college officials said.

Just ask welding program coordinator and instructor Devan DePauw, who points to letters he received in the spring from enthusiastic middle school students who toured welding operations as part of an NMC skilled trades event. Students viewed equipment grant monies helped purchase, including a unit that can be used both for live welding and for simulating a variety of welding tasks, and a robotic welding system like those used in industry.

The technologies have the effect of “opening up the world of welding … and increasing presence of mind out there, which helps to make this seem like a viable option,” DePauw said.

For the welding program, securing the new equipment was “a pivot point,” he said. It was integral to several things: development of a new degree designed to align courses with industry expectations, expanding upon welding process specific courses to include a greater emphasis on fabrication, weld quality, and automation classes; recruitment and hiring of a full-time welding faculty member, DePauw; and further program growth.

DePauw joined NMC in fall 2015 from a previous position of welding engineer with Miller Electric Manufacturing Co. in Appleton, Wisconsin, a leading manufacturer and global supplier of arc welding and cutting equipment.

With the live arc welding simulation equipment, NMC students “do the actual physical motions of performing the weld” and view accuracy and consistency on a screen that shows where improvement is needed, DePauw said.

The robotic welding cell, a one-stop work system made up of several components, including a robot and welding power source, familiarizes students with terms, concepts, and equipment used in industry, he said. Students learn principles that are crucial to “effectively integrate into a robotic or automation world, which is more and more becoming the norm out there.”

Raymond Woods, vice president of engineering at Sherwood Manufacturing Corp. in Northport, said the new degree and program improvements and direction, including NMC’s acquired equipment, are good moves for the college and for industry needs. He said welding is a skilled trade in high demand, and “whenever we need a welder, that’s the first place we go to, is the college.”

Sherwood Manufacturing does design/build and production welding, serving customers including Ford Motor Co. and Harley-Davidson Motor Co.

NMC’s new associate’s degree will provide industry-recognized, American Welding Society credentialing. The curriculum is also lined up with Ferris State University’s welding engineering technology program, which will give students an additional pathway beyond NMC and broadens their opportunities, Bailey said. DePauw said college and university officials are working toward transferability between the two programs.

In addition to the new degree, NMC is also offering a new, additional level of a certificate in welding technology. To accommodate all, welding classes have been consolidated at NMC’s Aero Park Laboratories building, where some $60,000 in non-grant-funded capital improvements includes additional welding booths and equipment.

Said DePauw: “We’re doing everything we can to try to give students the best possible tools that they can have to be effective in the modern manufacturing workplace.”

Helping community colleges purchase equipment they need to deliver skilled trades training was the aim of the state’s Community College Skilled Trades Equipment Program (CCSTEP), a one-time, $50 million initiative that in early 2015 awarded grants to 18 Michigan community colleges.

The grant enabled NMC to purchase the latest technology and equipment to help students be workforce ready, at a price NMC could afford. Total project cost was to be about $2.77 million, including some $2.07 million from the state and $697,061 in college matching funds.

Among college areas to benefit were electronics and fiber-optics, the latter including fiber-optics training equipment to mimic tasks students would encounter in industry and build skill sets.

In electronics, grant funding supported the purchase of spectrum analyzers — test equipment to detect the range of electrical frequencies being emitted — and oscilloscopes that are used to observe variations in electrical signal.

Jason Slade, instructor in NMC’s technical division, said the new oscilloscopes gave the electronics laboratory added capabilities and included an expensive set “that we never would have been able to afford on our own.”

The CCSTEP purchases in turn spawned the need for additional learning space and creation of a second electronics lab, in space vacated by welding’s move to Aero Park. The second lab area includes additional work benches and can better-accommodate student side projects and endeavors. The expansion also enabled NMC to offer more classes in electronics, robotics and automation, and to run classes concurrently, Slade said.

He said the CCSTEP-funded technologies help students be more workforce-ready “because of their ability to use state-of-the-art equipment and use it regularly.” The equipment also helps build interest, including among potential students and their parents, Slade said.

“Students are really perceptive. If you have some old clunky equipment, they pick up on it pretty fast,” he said.

Other NMC grant beneficiaries included nursing, with manikins that simulate patients, and computer information technology, which received several different types of equipment. Purchases included 22 file servers and data storage technology that provided students with a variety of new learning opportunities, including having an on-premise data center and incorporating the equipment into Internet-hosted cloud computing, said Scott Goethals, computer information technology faculty member.

“A lot of organizations are now seeing the benefits of putting things in the cloud,” he said. “The equipment allows students to both have an on-premise, which is our data center, as well as integrate with the cloud.”

The CCSTEP equipment gives students hands-on experience in technologies they are tested on when they take industry certification exams, and opportunity to practice and work with technology before they get jobs where it is in use.

Students are “able to have the skills that they need when they hit the job market,” Goethals said.

The grant-funded equipment has also elevated NMC program profiles. Take aviation, which has benefited from the purchase of several advanced drones that give unmanned aerial systems students high-level training.

“The CCSTEP grant and the equipment acquired through it, really put NMC aviation … years ahead of our competitors, and allowed us to do pretty advanced work in sensor integration, autopilot programming, and just advanced flying operations,” said Alex Bloye, director of NMC’s aviation division.

The level of equipment, “used right now by the upper echelon of industrial inspection companies,” has increased the experiential learning of current students and is also “very attractive to potential students,” Bloye said. “Simply along the lines of marketing, it really helps to keep our name out there.”

Another gain: A partnership with the Michigan State University Institute of Agricultural Technology to offer specialty courses for institute students, aimed at particular industries. One was an agricultural-based unmanned aerial systems training program earlier this year; another is an end-of-summer offering for turf grass management students to apply unmanned systems operations and technologies to golf course management, Bloye said.

And based on the course model developed for the MSU institute, companies and other entities, most of which are in the local five-county region, “have expressed interest in translating that to their operation,” Bloye said. “We are working with a number of industry partners to develop their own training scenarios and their own training modules.”

At NMC’s Great Lakes Water Studies Institute, the utility of CCSTEP-funded equipment has resonated throughout, including from NMC’s unique bachelor’s degree in marine technology, to freshwater studies, to hosted professional training and camps for college and high school students.

Key purchases included an approximately 66,000-gallon water tank that allows for year-round student work with remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), and a second and more sophisticated ROV that “is used across the world in multiple professional and industrial environments,” said institute director Hans Van Sumeren. “It provided us a workhorse vehicle, and allowed us to train in multiple scenarios.”

NMC’s Bailey said equipment capabilities have resulted in statewide and national presence. For example, NMC has become the exclusive provider of underwater ROV pilot training credentialed by the Association of Diving Contractors International. The college also co-sponsors camps with the Marine Technology Society that attract high school and college students from around the country, and hosts training programs for law enforcement representatives and industry professionals.

“Our programs have grown dramatically as a result of these acquisitions,” Van Sumeren said. “They allow us to train to a broader audience, multiple different ways, they’ve given us national and international exposure, and we’re seeing industry calling on us for our graduates.”

Amy Lane is a freelance journalist and former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered business, state government, energy and utilities for nearly 25 years.