In 2009, high school agriculture teacher Shane Stockham decided to make a big career change and accept a position as the instructor for North Idaho College’s (NIC) Industrial Mechanic/Millwright program. The 11-month program prepares students for employment as industrial plant maintenance mechanics or millwrights. Students learn the basics of maintenance, fabrication, installation, and alignment of equipment used in modern industrial and manufacturing plants.
“They’re the jack of all trades,” said Stockham. “You have to be skilled in a lot of areas, such as welding, hydraulics, electricity, rigging, pipe fitting, and mechanical drive and transmission systems. You’re not doing the same thing all the time, and after 14 years in the classroom, that really appealed to me.”
Though Stockham had a mechanical background and years of experience with farm equipment and welding, he had never been a millwright himself. But he was up for the challenge and spent the better part of 2009 and 2010 boning up on his skills, conducting research, and connecting with industry partners and the previous instructor to help his students succeed. Since the basic requirements of an entry-level millwright are fairly consistent, Stockham made only a few tweaks to the curriculum. One of the most impactful changes he made was having his students visit regional lumber mills and manufacturing facilities two or three times per year.
“Seeing the equipment in action gives them a feel for the work environment and different employers so they can think about whether they’d like to work in that setting,” said Stockham.
Thirteen years later, Stockham has hit his stride and takes pride in the fact that regional employers hold certificates from his program in high regard. About 90 percent of his students have jobs lined up when they graduate, and industry partners enthusiastically serve on his advisory committee, fund student scholarships, and donate materials. Employers such as the Idaho Forest Group, Stimson Lumber, and Kaiser Aluminum are eager to hire program graduates, and entry-level millwrights can expect to make $27 an hour to start with the potential to make up to $42 an hour once they achieve journeyman status. More experienced graduates have landed employment with the Army Corps of Engineers working on dams along the Columbia River or with Avista Utilities. One student even got hired by Rocky Mountain Construction in Hayden, Idaho, building roller coasters all over the world.
“Anybody who goes through the program is proud of it,” said Stockham. “It’s really hard, but when you look at where you start and where you end up, you have all these skills and can land a great job.”
Though employment opportunities abound, some graduates choose to complete the Mechatronics program and earn their associate degree.
“As everything becomes increasingly automated, mechatronics and mechanics is the wave of the future,” said Stockham. “If students can take the knowledge they learned as a millwright and understand how it drives work and the mechanics behind it, they become much more valuable workers.”
Industrial mechanics provides plenty of variety, opportunity, and competitive wages, but Stockham says his biggest struggle is creating awareness that the program and profession exist. Once potential students have an opportunity to learn about the program, they’re hooked.
“My former students are my best recruiters,” said Stockham. “Word of mouth is huge; many of my students have entered the program because they know someone who was a millwright who encouraged them to check the program out.”
The week before the fall 2017 semester began, Sean Sater received a call from the Trades and Industry Division Chair at North Idaho College (NIC), Doug Anderson. Anderson wondered if Sater would be willing to teach the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning technician (HVAC) class; if Sater said no, the program would be shut down.
Fortunately, Sater, who has 22 years of experience in the field, knew firsthand how much the Coeur d’Alene-Spokane area needed well-trained HVAC technicians. He’d also considered cutting back his hours at HollisterStier, where he worked as a consultant, so he agreed.
“I thought it was a great way to pay it forward and help the next generation change their stars,” said Sater.
Though his first year was a baptism by fire of sorts, Sater enjoyed teaching. So when Anderson, who also served on the board of Kootenai Technical Education Campus (KTEC), asked if Sater would be interested in teaching HVAC at the secondary level the following year, he again agreed.
“I was head over heels to get a hold of them early and get them trained up right,” said Sater. “When we first sat down, we didn’t want the HVAC program to be a huge expense, so we decided it would be best to let the KTEC students use the NIC lab. It’s within walking distance, and we didn’t have to bring in more equipment, which helped us strengthen the partnership between the secondary and postsecondary programs. It was a win-win-win for the students, the schools, and the taxpayers.”
Next, Sater had to strike a balance between offering enough dual credit to make the HVAC pathway appealing to secondary students but not reducing the course load so much that students wouldn’t be considered full-time students and not qualify for financial aid once they transferred to NIC. Sater settled on offering the three-credit HVAC 165 course for his KTEC students, making it easy for them to transition to the second semester’s coursework at NIC.
Sater’s unique position at KTEC and NIC means he can ensure his students have a seamless path from secondary to postsecondary to career. And because there is such a demand for HVAC technicians, employers are eager to speak to his classes and offer opportunities for his students to job shadow or do ride-alongs with their employees.
These interactions with employers mean most postsecondary students in their second and final semester know where they want to work and have a job lined up after graduation. The jobs Saters’ students walk into don’t exactly pay minimum wage, either.
“They’re paying $9,000 for books and tuition and can be making $52,000 a year to start, without the baggage of student debt,” said Sater. “That’s a pretty solid return on investment.”
At the end of the day, Sater loves knowing he’s setting future professionals up for success while helping to meet industry needs.
“I love the feeling of getting through to someone,” said Sater. “They might ride the struggle bus for a while, but when things come together, they learn it and burn it into their memory. It’s priceless to see the light come on.”