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measurements on a mill in the school’s teaching shop, he wasn’t just receiving tuition reimbursement from his employer, Hormel: he was actually on the clock. “I was a paid worker at Hormel, and they started a new program where they do on-the-job training and send us to school to learn more,” he said. Warren, in his second year of the two-year Riverland program, always has enjoyed working with his hands, he said. The $6 an hour raise from production worker to maintenance technician doesn’t hurt either. And

for you and they’re always on time and they do good work, that would be the employee I’d want rather than someone I don’t know.” It’s not just Minnesota companies that send workers to Riverland. Jake Vandezande of Austin was hired as a maintenance technician at Grain Millers Inc. in St. Ansgar, Iowa, with the expectation that he would go through the Riverland program alongside his work there. “They’re just starting me, almost as an apprenticeship in a way, working with me on certain things I do then in the program,” he said

Jamey Schmit, right, and Tim Gerber work on a assignment in Bob Bender’s classroom at Riverland Community College. Riverland’s two-year industrial maintenance program includes both lecture and hands-on coursework.

it’s a win for Hormel, too, he said, because they know they’re investing their tuition in a worker committed to the company. “I think their biggest key was finding someone within who wants to do the work,” he said. “If they’ve worked

as he practiced centering a metal block in a lathe chuck for drilling. “I’m doing a lot of replacing airlocks, it’s like an auger that feeds grain into different machines in the plant. [We do] a lot of reweldings, replacement bearings, greasing, predictive maintenance.”

Like Warren, Vandezande has long been interested in mechanical work — he has competed in welding competitions at Riverland in the past, and for a project in high school, he built a six by 12-foot metal trailer — but at Riverland, he’s learning the skills needed to care for modern production equipment, Bender said. “Industry looks to our program because they’ve had pretty good luck with our students,” he said.” At Viracon, Copeland confirmed the value of the program’s graduates … and their scarcity. “The technical, maintenance and electrical positions, those are hard to fill,” she said. “[Riverland] is a great program, but they produce a maximum of 25 graduating students a year. If you look at all the manufacturing companies in southern Minnesota, we’re all fighting over 25 people.” And with trained graduates so hard to come by, paradoxically, demand for the program has dropped, Bender said, as some companies open their maintenance roles to workers without the same qualifications. This year is the first time in several years Riverland hasn’t had need for night classes in the maintenance program. “We’ve had a waiting list the last few years, and we had to turn them away the last few years,” he said. “When unemployment is way down, school numbers come down. When they’re hiring Sam off the street, why should I get a twoyear degree? Other [companies] are saying, I’m so desperate. Can you breathe? Can you walk in?” But companies around the region | 17

Forge October 2017  
Forge October 2017