Game changer: Lake Tech prepares to impact manufacturing in Lake County.
story: Theresa Campbell /// photography: fred lopez
The Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CAM) facility to be built on the Eustis campus of Lake Technical College is a $4.6 million project. It will allow more students to learn skilled trades to meet the growing workforce needs in Lake County. Groundbreaking is expected to take place in August or September.
Lake Tech’s director, Dr. Diane Culpepper, is ready for construction to begin. She is even more eager for the center’s opening, tentatively set for August 2017.
“I can see how this is a game changer for our region and for Lake County in particular,” says Culpepper. “It will make a huge impact on not only our current manufacturers to be able to expand and grow, but also for our county to be able to attract new manufacturing companies to Lake County.”
Jack Miller, Lake Tech’s director of facilities and supervisor for welding, says CAM also addresses a national goal.
“Everybody in the country is trying to bring manufacturing back to the United States,” he says. “And in Lake County, we have a lot of small manufacturing companies wanting employees who are well trained.”
The 24,000-square-foot center will feature a combination of revitalized existing buildings joined with new construction. This expansion means Lake Tech can offer training in machining, welding, fabrication, and computer numeric control (CNC) programming, where specialized machinists are trained to use computerized control of lathes, mills, routers, and grinders.
Culpepper says these manufacturing skills are required by many companies. Employers wanting to hire Lake Tech students for immediate jobs approach her routinely.
“Metro Steel in Tavares was trying to hire 25 welders just like that,” she says. “We had about 10 we sent over there to interview who were getting ready to graduate, but we didn’t have 25, and that was just one company.”
Welding is popular at Lake Tech with an average of 40 students taught by two instructors. Twenty students take classes during the day, and 20 at night, yet there’s usually a waiting list with 30 more on it.
“We run welding day and night because of the demand,” Culpepper says.
The new CAM building will allow Lake Tech to double the size of its welding and fabrication shop, and also provide an advanced welding class for students to learn additional skills.
Miller says there are benefits to students learning from both instructors, who now take turns sharing their knowledge.
“It’s a performance-based program, so some students move faster than others, and it’s very detail oriented,” Miller says, adding welding has been attracting female students, too.
In addition to working for local companies, some Lake Tech welding graduates were hired at SpaceX and Westinghouse, on oil rigs in Houston, and even six-figure jobs in Alaska.
Miller says Lake Tech is blessed to have instructors who gave up their well-paying jobs to teach.
“They love sharing their trade with other individuals,” says Miller, who is eager for Lake Tech take its manufacturing programs to the next level through CAM.
Culpepper recalled the idea for CAM was introduced more than three years ago when local employers expressed a need for graduates trained in manufacturing.
“I certainly credit the entire community for being behind this,” she says. Lake Tech received overwhelming support from the Lake County Board of Commissioners, which made the project their No. 1 priority for two years of the legislative session and provided economic development incentive funds.
State legislators, Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla; Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha; Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Eustis; and Rep. Marlene O’Toole, R-The Villages also made CAM their top priority project, and Gov. Rick Scott recently approved $2.8 million in funding for CAM.
“On top of that, many in our business community, the manufacturers—we have about 300 in Lake County—have been intimately involved in this project from the beginning,” Culpepper says.
Some employers worked with her to craft a plan and designed drawings for the facility; others helped with curriculum development. She also heard from employers willing to provide internships, donate equipment to the center, and Duke Energy recently installed a new transformer for CAM and donated a good portion of the cost.
“I’m just tickled that everybody in our community pulled together for this, and even companies that are not manufacturers, but still very supportive,” Culpepper says. “There has been a variety of companies, cities, and chambers of commerce sending letters of support. It’s just like a Lake Tech love fest.”
Culpepper calls CAM the highlight of her 29 years in career and technical education and a major part of her seven years at Lake Tech.