After serving four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, Sean Datusch faced a new dilemma when he left the service in 2018 – what to do for a job. A chance conversation with his uncle and another man sent him on a new path that led to Meridian Community College.
Cole Breland, a native of Brandon, started college after graduating high school, then dropped out and went to work. But, he kept feeling like he should be following a different road in life. The shop where he was working had CNC (Computer Numeric Control) machinery, and it piqued his interest.
David Learmonth spent 12 years in the U.S. Army, joining after the 9/11 attacks. After he left the service, he worked a few jobs before ending up at MCC with a desire to become a mechanical engineer. But a fellow student’s speech in class one day sent him in a different direction.
Datusch, Breland and Learmonth have all discovered their career fields through MCC’s Precision Machining Engineering Technology program. It is a highly successful program that has garnered a reputation within the state’s industry circles for the caliber of its graduates and its ability to offer students advanced CNC machining training.
While some of its students are fresh out of high school, many are non-traditional students who have served in the military, have previous college experience or drifted among jobs in unrelated fields. Most also hold down part-time or full-time internships or jobs while in the program.
“The program is a game-changer for many students who are looking for a career or who are currently working, but are underemployed,” said Brian Warren, Program Coordinator of Precision Machining and Division Chair of Industrial Technology at MCC.
The program is designed for students who like to do things hands-on. Utilizing mathematics, problem solving and technical skills, the program teaches students specific machining skills valued by precision manufacturing companies.
Students in the program can earn a one-year certificate, get more advanced training with a two-year certificate or combine with college classes to earn an associate’s of applied science degree. All program students become NIMS (National Institute for Metalworking Skills) Certified Machinists and Certified Haas CNC Operators.
CNC is a method of fitting a conventional machine with a computer, so work is done automatically with high precision, accuracy and in mass quantity. Whether it is manufacturing parts for the medical, aerospace, marine biology, automotive or most any industry, students in precision machining are learning that CNC is what makes the world go round.
“If you have ever wondered how certain parts on your vehicle or your lawnmower or your tractor or just about any mechanical device is made, all of it is made by CNC because of how precise it has to be,” said Learmonth.
“That is what I like about the program,” he said. “I like that it is hands-on, but you have to still sit down and use your mind. It is not something that everybody can do. You have to be able to think outside the box. Sometimes you have to make the tool that you will need then use your tool to make your part.”
Learmonth was in the process of dropping out of high school on the day of the September 11 attacks in 2001. He earned his GED then joined the U.S. Army as soon as he could. Over the next 12 years, he served at various military installations stateside and abroad.
Out of the service and enrolled in MCC, Learmonth listened to a fellow student give a speech one day in class on the Precision Machining Engineering Technology Program explaining what it is about. Capturing his interest, Learmonth went to talk to Warren.
“I love the program. I have a lot of fun with it,” he said. “I like all of the other students in the program. There is a sense of camaraderie in the shop. We have text groups where we have daily chats and talk to each other. We have gotten to know each other pretty well. A lot of times we go to lunch together after class.”
A few months ago, Learmonth started working a union-approved internship at Taylor Machine Works in Louisville, operating both Haas and Toshiba CNC machines. He will continue at Taylor part-time and will become a full-time employee once he graduates from the program with his associate’s degree in December. He and his wife, Rachael, a psychiatric nurse at East Mississippi State Hospital, live in Neshoba County. He has a 10-year-old daughter, Raelyn, who lives in Florida.
Datusch, who will graduate with his associate’s degree in May, admits he did not know much about CNC and precision machining when he enrolled in the program. A 2013 graduate of Clarkdale High School, he joined the Marines in July 2014. When he got out of the service, he was trying to decide on a job to pursue when his uncle and a former student’s father told him about the program.
“I was fresh out of the Marine Corps, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Datusch said. “I knew that sitting in a classroom was not something I really wanted to do. They encouraged me to come and talk to Brian, and so I did. Once I got in the program, I loved it.”
Datusch said the program is not anything he was expecting. He likes the hands-on aspect of the training plus the fact it is very challenging work.
“This is not a high school shop class,” he noted. “Brian is a great teacher. He makes it challenging and pushes you to succeed. You have to be prepared to learn, and you have to take it seriously. If you do, then it is going to pay out well when you graduate.”
Datusch has accepted a job as a Haas CNC Machinist with High Tech Inc. in Long Beach, a small prototype design facility that has supplied the Navy and the worldwide seismic community with high-quality hydrophones but also manufactures parts for oil fields, the aerospace industry and marine biology firms. He is currently working part-time with the company as an intern planning to go full time when he graduates. Before that, he worked as an intern with Fairbanks Scales in Meridian, going to classes in the morning and working from mid-afternoon until late at night. His wife, Amber, is a graduate of MCC’s Radiologic Technology Program.
Breland, 27, is a 2011 graduate of Brandon High School. After graduation, he spent a year playing soccer for a community college in the Jackson area. Then, he left school and worked in different jobs. While working at a machinery shop, he saw firsthand a CNC machine in operation. It got him interested in learning how to operate one, so he started researching precision machining programs on the internet.
“I found the MCC program literally by Googling it,” he said. “Brian’s class was known for being one of the best in the state. It has a good reputation.”
He enrolled in the program in August 2018 and moved to Meridian. He will earn his two-year certificate in May then move back to Brandon. He has accepted a position as a Haas CNC operator with Precision Spine Inc., which manufactures titanium implants used in spinal surgeries, as well as tools used by the surgeons to perform those surgeries. He has held down a full-time job with Fairbanks Scales since shortly after enrolling in the program, also working from mid-afternoon to late at night.
“I had no expectations when I came here because I really did not know much about precision machining,” Breland said. “It really has been a lot more work than I expected, but I like the fact that it is challenging. I would not have liked it if it was too easy. It does require a lot of work because this trade is not easy for anyone to pick up on.
“But, it is a good field to go into. The pay is good and it is easy to find a job as a CNC operator or machinist,” he said. “Year after year, guys already have jobs before they graduate from this program. It is a good program.” Warren said all of the students in the program are special because of their drive and their work ethic.
“They are not your typical students,” he said. “They all came into the program as strangers who have had various careers and life experiences and have become very good friends in the process. They work together well and motivate and drive each other to be better than the day before.”
Coronavirus and student training
The shutdown of the MCC campus due to the coronavirus has impacted the students’ training, but MCC is working hard to make sure the students stay on schedule with their learning and graduate on time because many of them already have jobs waiting on them, Warren said.
Students are working as interns in industry until the semester ends, which is helping to give them some hands-on experience, Warren said. Also, the program is using online training resources to help students complete their studies. They are completing their Haas CNC Operators Certification online, too.
Warren said he knows they are disappointed with how the semester has ended and for those who missed out on competing in the state’s annual SkillsUSA competition, which MCC has won for the past five years. Last year, they placed second at the national championship.
“While it is disappointing that they will not have the chance to compete and earn the title of state champion, I take comfort in the fact that they are better machinists for preparing anyway,” he said. “They are healthy and will all go to work in a high paying career that they will love.”