“I love the hands-on. I love being exposed to all the science. I love working with the engineers and scientists. I don’t know if it is the same for many labs and research institutes, but [LLNL] technicians, you definitely get exposed to quite a bit,” Correa Barrios said during a videoconference interview.
Correa Barrios has earned his way onto more complex projects with what his boss calls a “full toolbox” of technical skills ranging from drafting and welding to vacuum technology knowledge and eagerness to learn new skills.
To test circuit boards that are new products or prototypes requires his efficient use of microscopes, oscilloscopes, and other measuring equipment, as well as precise soldering skills. Fortunately he has steady hands. He praises his PCC instructors for imparting strong foundational knowledge in how heat transfer works, how to read technical documents such as schematics, and how to use different types of software.
Rachel Gaines has had an array of technician jobs at sea and on land since 2012 when she enrolled in a marine biology course at Monterey Peninsula College in California. At that point she had earned a bachelor’s degree in contemporary music and was employed as a wildfire firefighter. Learning to surf nudged her to think about an ocean-related career.
Since then her curiosity and hard work have helped her gain technical skills – like those she learned as a technician maintaining and piloting remotely operated vehicles aboard the Ocean Exploration Trust’s Exploration Vessel Nautilus – to propel her career.
“Just being a constant learner is really going to take you far,” is advice – practically a personal motto – that she hopes educators will impress upon aspiring technicians. Now a hardware engineer with the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), Gaines started there as a civilian technician in 2018 after completing a bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronics engineering from the University of Southern California (USC).
Leveraging College Opportunities
As a student at the community college in Monterey, Gaines joined the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Club and was part of a team that participated in the international ROV competition organized by the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center (MATE). “We didn’t win any of the prizes, but it was a cool experience,” she said.
Building and operating the ROV at the competition piqued her interest in ROVs, and led to her to apply to become one of MATE’s at-sea interns. She was placed on a team that maintained the two robots that scientists aboard the Nautilus use for research. At that point, she had not taken an electronics course and had little experience using power tools. Fortunately the education mission of the Nautilus meant all the professional staffers were very patient.
The Nautilus is operated by the non-profit Ocean Exploration Trust under the direction of Robert Ballard, the University of Rhode Island oceanography professor known for discovering hydrothermal vents and “black smokers” in the Galapagos Rift and East Pacific Rise and the locations of shipwrecks, including HMS Titanic and the German battleship Bismarck.
As the site operations director for Ultium Cells LLC in Lordstown, Ohio, Tom Gallagher’s responsibilities include hiring 1,000 technicians to produce electric vehicle battery cells in the $2.3 billion plant that is under construction.
When the company begins production in mid-2022 Gallagher said it will employ
battery cell technicians who will operate all aspects of battery cell manufacturing;
quality technicians who will do analytical work to check incoming materials, production, and completed battery cells; and
maintenance technicians who will carry out electrical and mechanical tasks to maintain equipment and processes.
Most interesting to technical educators may be Ultium’s plan to utilize “an apprentice-type format” to educate technicians in-house. He would like technicians to have technical competency, which he defines as “application of STEM-based skills in industrial environments as well as critical thinking and the ability to work in a team environment.”
While math and science knowledge is important, Gallagher said he is most interested in how people apply their math skills in tandem with their willingness to learn, their capacity to think critically, and their personal history of collaboration. He said the company is looking for people who “collaborate, communicate, and collectively drive problem-solving.”
Ultium, which is a partnership of General Motors (GM) and LG Chem, is working with the new Center for Workforce Education and Innovation at Youngstown State University (YSU) to recruit applicants from Youngstown and Warren, two urban areas that have been struggling economically since large steelmakers exited in the late 1970s.
Justin E. Manley, a marine technology innovator for three decades, sees many interesting, well-compensated opportunities in the ocean-based or “blue” economy for people interested in hands-on, intellectual work. “There’s lots of roles that are a good fit,” he said.
Among the challenges for technical educators is the historically low visibility of the maritime sector, and the reality that maritime technicians must combine high-tech skills with the physical and mental capabilities to thrive at sea.
“Ocean technician jobs, whether they’re robotics or instruments or similar, there’s an added level of personal challenge involved, which could come from being sea sick. It could come from sleeping in a confined space. It could come from being surrounded by different types of people. It could be useful for faculty to help their students gain exposure to such stressors or challenges outside the normal academic elements of school. That’s going to help future technicians succeed,” Manley said during a recent Zoom interview.