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Fixing the Skills Gap Starts with PC Building at Sierra College

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High-level context

Projection models by Delloitte predict that 2 million US manufacturing jobs will go unfilled 10 years from now—more half of the 3.5 million available. Why? Experts blame a generational image problem. The idea of ‘factory work’ for college-age students connotes assembly line drudgery, faded rust belt cities, and unskilled dead ends.

This is incorrect thinking with dire implications for US manufacturing. CEOs in the US industrial sector say finding skilled labor is the number one detriment for innovation in their business.

Training for a lucrative career in manufacturing tech is attainable and affordable. Subsidized low-cost education offers unmatched ROI for students compared to a traditional undergraduate route. Community colleges lead the charge with direct-to-work education; hopes are they can shift attitudes toward technical work in the manufacturing sector.

A fine example is Sierra College’s Mechatronics department in the foothills of northern California and its Real Jobs Real Skills program. The training fuses robotics, automation, and process control—aligning curriculum to real-life workforce needs.

Building the skills for modern manufacturing with mechatronics

Mechatronics is a discipline developed in the 1970s intended to maintain and innovate automation used in industry. Asian and European technical schools have well established programs in mechatronics. Historically, US higher education lags behind other countries in matching educational offerings to the skills industry demands.

UK mechatronics students compete at the WorldSkills global showcase.

UK mechatronics students compete at the WorldSkills global showcase.

You may not realize how widely applicable mechatronics are. “It’s the study of technology that we take for granted,” explains Michael Halbern, mechatronics professor of at Sierra College. “You don’t notice the system running the elevator, or how only the most perfect-looking strawberries make it to the grocery store—that’s all mechatronics.”

During your next restroom break, consider the PLC system automating a nearby waste and water plant, and how important having someone with technical knowhow to deploy, fix, and maintain it.

Learning about industrial controllers by assembling desktop PCs

Recently, we shipped a truckload of computer parts to Sierra College. They were for Computer Configuration and Repair, an entry-level required course that Halbern instructs. “It removes the veil of mystery of what computers are all about,” he says, commenting on the scope of the class. “The computers have the same architecture as the ruggedized systems that industrial systems use.”

During the first weeks of the course, students learn about computers, take them apart, and then put them back together. The remainder of the term is configuration. They start by deploying OS and security software, then dive deeper in the command line interface (CLI). They learn to control the PC like an embedded system.

Sierra College Students Build PCs

Build day at Sierra College’s Computer Configuration and Repair class

Once the PCs are assembled, they serve as normal endpoints for faculty and students. Halbern says most computers you find on campus are commercial units, whereas his were assembled by students in his classes.

NeweggBusiness for procurement of PC components

Sierra College refreshes PCs after 10 years of service. University computers are largely on the same refresh cycle, and this year marked EOL for many legacy machines. For the new builds, Sierra College went with NeweggBusiness for computer parts procurement.

Schools want generic-as-possible components for uniformity and efficiency. Ideally computers will be the same inside and out. Sometimes it’s difficult to find the parts, quantity, and price that fits the school budget. Halbern’s account executive delivered on parts and price, and got the trucks heading toward campus the next morning.

PCs waiting to be built at Sierra College

Sierra College lab PCs await assembly

Advantages of a business account supply line

When he built the last round about ten years ago, Halbern sourced parts from Newegg—this was before we introduced the dedicated B2B division. “The last project project went 85 percent to plan, everything was good for the most part,” Halbern notes.

“Now it’s closer to 100 with the support we get. It’s great to have someone to call and check on logistics, or if you need an RMA turned around.” Halbern works directly with higher education account specialist Stacey Jouglet when ordering for Sierra College.

He notes that the college procurement office recognizes the value of convenience sourcing parts from one vendor.

“We have a lot of people we could buy from, but with the pricing and support we get there is no reason to spread out the order.”

Instructional PC builds – parts and approach

As a rule, industrial computers have parts two or three generations behind the leading edge. This is deliberate. “Manufacturing systems should have parts that have been around long enough to have proof of reliability and quality,” the professor says.

He chose to build around a Skylake-generation Intel Core i5, a notable processor for price-to-performance ratio.
He needed Z270 motherboards for the chip and peripheral support—it’s one of a few MOBOs with LGA 1151 sockets to fit the CPU, and PCIB pegs for machinery controls. If you imagine an Arduino modified with failover mechanisms and a ruggedized case that is the essence of a mechatronics controller.

Added security workarounds to protect school assets

Students use school PCs for lab work and configuration exercises, so there is inherent security risk to mitigate. For this, Halbern locks the main PC drives, and lab work is saved to student-issued docked HDDs. He installs Deep Freeze software for centralized administration of image and restore functions should he need to wipe out malicious or inappropriate files.

Sierra College Lab After PC Builds

Freshly built PCs give the lab a new look

Bottom line & final thoughts

We are proud to partner with value-minded institutions like Sierra College. It costs a student under $3,000 in tuition for a two year degree. Graduates walk into a $30,000-$50,000 salary for entry-level work. “Our goal is to turn students into taxpayers,” Halbern says. Tuition costs are offset by government funding; community colleges receive most of their funding from the state. Halbern and his colleagues consider every graduate that joins the workforce a ROI—which they deliver with pride and frequency.

Adam Lovinus

Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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