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Students consider careers in machining as alternative to increasingly expensive college degrees

“Without machining and without machinists, you won't have anything at the store. We literally have our hands in absolutely everything.”

  • Julia Agos
Isaac Graby, 17, sets up a CNC machine to make soft jaws to hold the parts he and his classmates will make for NASA that will be used on the International Space Station at the Lebanon County Career and Technology Center on Feb. 2, 2022

Isaac Graby, 17, sets up a CNC machine to make soft jaws to hold the parts he and his classmates will make for NASA that will be used on the International Space Station at the Lebanon County Career and Technology Center on Feb. 2, 2022

(Lebanon) – Eric Tanger’s class of 10 high school seniors at the Lebanon County Career and Technical Training Center in Lebanon was hard at work.

The students were perfecting code at their workstations and operating machines. Their handiwork had to be meticulous. Measurements and calculations had to be precise.

Their work was destined for the International Space Station.

“Human hair is roughly three thousands of an inch in diameter. We’re holding a tolerance of about one third of that,” Tanger explained. “So everything’s gotta be super, super tight.”

Eric Tanger, industrial machine technology instructor at the Lebanon County Career and Technology Center, talks to his students Feb. 2, 2022, about a program that paired his students with NASA to make parts for the International Space Station.

While some were working on things called nesting jaws, others were making the part itself that will be sent to NASA. The roughly three-inch blocks have knobs to grab onto. They will be installed on the walls of the space station to make it easier for astronauts to move around inside.

When Tanger first started teaching, he had three classes all full of students with ambitions of joining the machining industry.

Now, he can barely fill this class. To him, machining is a dying art.

“Nobody knows what we do. It’s that taboo, you know, and everybody takes for granted something breaks, whatever, I go to the store, I buy it,” he said. 

Students at the Lebanon County Career and Technology Center made these parts for NASA that will eventually be used on the International Space Station.

He said a lot of jobs in machining are available that don’t require a college degree. Most of his students could go on to make $45,000-$50,000 a year the minute they leave school. 

“Manufacturing is one of those really unknown industries. But without machining and without machinists, you won’t have anything at the store,” Tanger said. “We literally have our hands in absolutely everything.”

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that Pennsylvania is among the states with the highest employment level in machinists. The commonwealth holds over 15,000 of the 360,000 machinist jobs in the county. 

Pennsylvania’s average annual wage for machinists is higher than the national average at $49,260 compared to $47,800. 

Rhett Musser, 18, was one of the students perfecting his code on a computer, before running it through the machine. He said he has spent dozens of hours on this single, small piece. 

“I’ve looked at this part on paper and in this machine for a month. Then to see it, like actually to be able to hold it, is really cool,” he said.

Across the room, Jazmin Blake, the only female in the class, was getting ready to run her code. She was trying to make it cut a perfect line across her part. 

“Not many women are in the field,” Blake said.

Jazmin Blake shows how she and her classmates will make parts of NASA that will be used on the International Space Station at the Lebanon County Career and Technology Center on Feb. 2, 2022

She was encouraged to enroll in the Career and Technology training center’s machining program by a teacher at Annville-Cleona Secondary School in an effort to increase diversity in the profession.

Tanger said he’s thrilled with her work as well as the effort from the rest of the class. It’s all part of getting on the soap box to raise awareness about the benefits of a life in the field.

“It’s getting the kids excited, seeing what it really is, but then also showing the job markets like, this is how many jobs there are,” he said.

One student who may be taking his advice is Issac Graby. He is considering a job as a traveling machinist after he graduates. 

“It’s kind of like a traveling nurse,” he said. “It’s an assignment for three to six months across the states.”

Isaac Graby, 17, sets up a CNC machine at the Lebanon County Career and Technology Center on Feb. 2, 2022 to make soft jaws that will help in making parts for NASA that will be used for the International Space Station.

The students will spend the next few months working on their projects. At the end of the semester, they get to have a little fun. There is a party slated for them at the end of the semester to celebrate their work. 

“They actually get to sign some parts that will ultimately go off and be mounted up into space,” Tanger said. 

The results of all their hard work — and their names — will be floating in space for decades to come.

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