Opportunity Stanislaus and its industry partners created the VOLT Institute for adults like Gustavo Amezcua of Oakdale.
Amezcua, 27, worked as an operator for Rizo Lopez Foods before the company gave him the chance to become a maintenance mechanic at the McClure Road cheese-making plant.
It's a prime opportunity for Amezcua to earn a larger income for supporting his young family. On average, industrial maintenance mechanics earn $27.80 an hour in Stanislaus County.
Local industries struggle to find qualified maintenance mechanics and the demand for those blue-collar jobs is forecast to increase 15 percent over the next six years.
Amezcua is among 30 students in the first graduating class at the VOLT Institute, launched in October by Opportunity Stanislaus, industry partners like Pacific Southwest Container and E&J Gallo Winery, and the Stanislaus County Office of Education.
In 2016, SCOE offered space for the trade school in the former Modesto Bee building, at 13th and H streets, which was purchased by SCOE for expanding its services.
Dave White, chief executive officer of the business development agency, Opportunity Stanislaus, said there are 200 unfilled positions for maintenance mechanics in the county. With economic growth, those workers are in short supply as veteran mechanics retire and fewer high school students are trained for vocations.
As the VOLT Institute is further developed, it's also expected to provide training in electrical systems and maintenance of automated production equipment. The program is supported by major employers in the county that face a critical need for skilled mechanics to maintain equipment and keep production lines running.
"The typical students in our program are in their 30s and looking for a better job," White said. "There are a lot of people who have a job, but it's not a good job, not a living wage and the chances of going to college has passed them by."
Of the 40 students who enrolled in the VOLT Institute last fall, three quarters were in the 18 to 35 age group. Some were "incumbents" or employees of local companies that want them to upgrade their skills; others were young adults with lower-wage jobs, jobless people referred by county Workforce Development, and SCOE adult education graduates.
The group included a teacher looking for a career change.
Though a high school diploma is a minimum requirement for the VOLT institute, 52 percent of the students had attended some college and 9 percent were college graduates.
Deborah Rowe, director of career training programs for SCOE, said last week that 10 students dropped out for personal reasons or discovered the mechanics' vocation was not for them. Twenty-six of the students set for a graduation ceremony June 27 are employed and the other four are actively seeking jobs, Rowe said.
Ron Losinski, master instructor at VOLT, said he's well aware of the need for mechanics and other technical positions at manufacturing plants in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. When he was a maintenance manager for a plant in Lathrop, he said, it was impossible to hire qualified people off the streets.
He said plant closures were an opportunity to snatch up skilled workers and some employees were trained in an apprenticeship program at Modesto Junior College.
At the VOLT Institute, trainees first take a three-week course (12 hours a week) to learn the soft skills of working in the manufacturing environment, including ethics, communication, resolving conflicts, decision making and public speaking.
They advance to mechanical courses offered in the morning, afternoon or evening, where they learn the basics of machine tools, mechanical drives, pumps, pneumatic and hydraulic systems, metal working, torching techniques and mechanical circuitry.
The students can complete the vocational training and be job-ready in eight months.
Students in an afternoon class last week spent an hour on computers absorbing concepts, followed by an hour or two of hands-on learning at training equipment stations.
"Quite a few of our students have no mechanical experience," Rowe said. "We try to team them up with incumbents who have mechanical skills."
Cameron Jones and a Crystal Creamery employee were tested at one station on regulating the actuating speeds of a mechanical system. Jones has been working for a shoe business at Vintage Faire Mall and heard about the Volt Institute from a friend, he said.
"I like some of their shoes but don't get enough hours to buy them," said Jones, who is close to completing the training and is applying for jobs.
Dan Martin, director of facility services at Doctors Medical Center in Modesto, said he’s hired two students from VOLT's inaugural class to maintain motors and pumps in the hospital, wire lights and handle repairs.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for the community because we have such a decline in individuals that have the proper skills for doing maintenance-type work,” said Martin, who’s on the advisory board for VOLT. “We will interview and interview many times just to get a few people who are qualified.”
Martin said the new hires will start at entry level pay for mechanical positions and soon jump to higher levels when they learn the health care side of the business.
As for VOLT's minimum requirements, the new students must be at least 18 years old, have a high school diploma and complete the WorkKeys Assessment that measures skills for success in the workplace. Trainees must have the reading skills to understand manuals.
Tuition for the maintenance mechanic program is $2,500 per quarter or a total of $7,500. Companies sending employees through the training program may cover all or part of the cost. Self-pay students may be eligible for loans or scholarships and assistance may be available for students coming from adult education or the county workforce development program.
The VOLT Institute was launched with a $700,000 investment from private sources. Rowe said the funding that SCOE receives for the program requires six-month and 12-month reviews on how the graduates perform.
Rowe said the former Bee building is taking shape as a career center also offering training in construction, health care and other industries.
When she was principal of Enochs High School, Rowe said, 45 percent of the 550 students in a graduating class would attend college and not all of them would finish with a four-year degree. The military was always an option, but a large number of graduates were faced with earning a living wage without a college degree.
"I want to work for those who are not going to college and not going to the military," Rowe said. "College is great but we are leaving a lot of folks behind."
Those interested in training at the VOLT Institute may call 209-566-9102 or send an email to email@example.com. For more information on programs, visit http://opportunitystanislaus.com/VOLTInstitute.