The future turns to technology: H-F prepares students for a skilled workforce

  H-F High School Auto Club members, from left,
  Angelina Lopez of Homewood, Mike Pennick of
  Hazel Crest and Eric Ray of Flossmoor work
  on their Mustang race car.
(Photos by 
  Mary Compton/H-F Chronicle)
 
As the 1997 Mustang roared to life, the mechanics cheered.
 
For students in the Auto Club at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, the 7- to 12-hour summer days of rebuilding the car had finally paid off with the sweetest sound they knew.
Few other students would hear it.
 
When the young mechanics tell their friends about automotive classes at H-F, it comes as a surprise.
 
  Max Nicolazzi of Flossmoor
  gets some help from his
  manufacturing teacher,
  William Merchantz.

 
“They say, ‘We have a race car?’” said Angelina Lopez, a junior from Homewood.
 
“A lot of people don’t know this is back here,” said classmate Michael Pennick, a junior from Hazel Crest.
 
H-F’s automotive classes are offered through the school’s Industrial Technology program. There are also multi-year sequences in engineering, manufacturing and welding. All are designed to teach valuable, 21st century skills for a rapidly changing workplace.
 
The classic Mustang — which this year is scheduled to race four times at Byon Dragway, near Rockford – is symbolic of the pride and commitment that automotive students have in their program.
 
It’s the same in other Industrial Technology classes. Students learn how to use tools and machines. But they are also acquiring computer skills. They know public speaking is important, and that they will have to work on projects in groups.
 
One thing is certain: This is not your grandfather’s shop program.
 
  H-F automotive teacher
  Benjamin May.

 
They ‘get you standing up, moving, using your hands’
H-F High School’s Industrial Technology program is not only strong, it’s growing. A proposed building renovation could provide expanded space for the manufacturing program as soon as fall 2018. That will depend on arts classes moving to a new addition to the high school that would be built next to Mall Auditorium. It’s likely that the Board of Education will approve the proposed $8 million project, which would include a new theater and classrooms.
 
More space for Industrial Technology classes would be welcome. Kevin Thomas, who chairs the Applied Academics Department, said student numbers are steadily growing. For example, automotive classes have a limit of 18 students, he said.
 
“We’ve already hit our limit in some classes,” he said.
 
A new teacher was hired for the program last fall, another sign that more students are signing up for Industrial Technology classes.
 
Classes for the new industrial world employ a “project based curriculum,” Thomas says. In addition, they “get you standing up, moving, using your hands.”
 
A recent tour of the Industrial Technology area started in the small engine repair classroom. That’s where automotive students take their first class, usually as freshmen. Thomas teaches the class. Students must learn all the components of the engine, which drives a pump. They take it apart and then put it back together. Along the way, they learn to use the tools at their disposal. Before that, though, they must learn the rules of safety in the shop.
 
Next, he points out the automotive area.
 
“We’re very proud of this,” Thomas says. There are lifts and alignment machines and the same kind of diagnostic tools you’d find in an auto repair shop. 
 
There are cars on the lifts. Automotive teacher Ben May explains that about eight cars are donated to the program each year. One of the cars is a red BMW. One of the students bought the car and brought it into the automotive shop.
 
“It’s his group’s project,” May says.
 
The manufacturing shop has machines used for generations in tool and die work. There is also a recently-acquired mini-mill that is computer driven and performs functions that were formerly done by a number of machines in the shop.
 
Thomas says the U.S. is suffering from a manufacturing skills gap, with 360,000 unfilled — and high-paying — jobs.
 
“Small shops can’t get people,” he said. “They are crying for quality talent. They want workers who can do modern manufacturing and can show up ready to go to work.”
 
  Pouring gas into the
  Mustang race car, from
  left, Jesse Malone of
  Chicago Heights, Isante
  Becton of Homewood and
  Chase White of Homewood.

 
Thomas said manufacturing “is coming back to the U.S.” and that educational institutions need to prepare young people for good jobs that can support them and their families for years to come. H-F manufacturing students can get credit for courses at Prairie State College, which already has a partner with Acelor Mittal, the international steel company with plants in Northwest Indiana.
 
Students take a 2½ year program at PSC and spend two summers at Acelor Mittal as paid interns. When they graduate from the community college, he said, they will be ready for jobs that start at $44,000 a year. After a probation period, they can make as much as $70,000.
 
Five former H-F students have already gone through the PSC program and are serving apprenticeships at the steel mill, he said.
 
Whenever possible, the classes utilize a team building approach. In the welding program, for example, students in advanced welding work with younger students as team leaders.
 
Engineering courses at H-F are aligned with Project Lead the Way, a national program initiated by the Kohler Corporation of Wisconsin. The company started it in an effort to foster “homegrown engineers” in the U.S. Nate Beebe, who teaches the engineering and architecture courses, has worked with other schools in the area on Project Lead the Way programs.
 
“These students are proud of what they do,” Thomas says.  
   
‘This is not what existed for our fathers or grandfathers’
The future of manufacturing arrived in mid-October in Bill Merchantz’s classroom space.
 
It is cube-shaped, more than six feet tall and about that wide. It is specifically, a CT vertical mill built by Haas Automation. 
 
“When we refer to manufacturing, we mean advanced manufacturing,” Merchantz said. “This is a great example of it.”
 
  Jake Spencer of Homewood
  works during the
  manufacturing class at
  H-F High School.

 
Merchantz, H-F’s manufacturing and welding teacher, said students who learn programming skills on this machine will be able to apply them to any vertical CT mill. The school’s mill, he said, is smaller than most.
 
“Some will fill half the room,” he said. “But the same principles apply.”
 
Today’s industrial tech students, like those in past manufacturing courses, learn how to use machines that make pieces for industry. Think tool and die making. A machine like the Haas mini-mill is not only faster, but it’s also more accurate, Merchantz says.
 
Students will learn how to use the mini-mill in a new course, Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM), which is part of Project Lead the Way. That course will be offered to students in the second year of the manufacturing program.
 
The mini-mill is still not operational. Merchantz said it still needs to be hooked up to the school’s electrical system. After that, students will be practicing on it. He predicted that students will be familiar enough with it to take part in a manufacturing competition in April.
 
“I get asked every day. ‘Is it hooked up yet?’” he said.
 
There is a three-year sequence for manufacturing at H-F. The first year focuses on woods and metals. CIM will now be the focus of the second year. Third-year students will learn further machine school technology or wood working. More advanced students can take further courses at Prairie State College and get credits that apply at both H-F and PSC.
 
  Jeffrey Ordonez and
  Ernesto Ayala both of
  Chicago Heights bleed
  brakes during auto shop
  class at HF High School.

 
The manufacturing shop is filled with machines, some of which have been at the school for many years. There are drill presses — Merchantz says they use a technology that is unchanged since the 1800s. Five manual metal lathes, he says, have been at H-F since the 1950s. There is a Bridgeport manual vertical drill. All the machines have been used to make metal pieces for industry.
 
The Haas mini-mill — it cost about $19,000 — is located next to the Bridgeport machine. Merchantz explains that it can do all the jobs of the other machines. He pointed to a student working on the Bridgestone mill.
 
“He’d been working over there for about five minutes,” he said. “The Haas mill can do everything he’s done in seconds.”
 
He points to the spindle inside the Haas mill. It will cut the pieces that in the past would be fashioned at the Bridgestone machine.
 
“You can do a lot more work and it will be a lot more accurate.”
 
There is, of course, a catch. There is a computer program for the new machine. And students have to learn all the codes. Specifically, they need to learn the 3D molding software for the machine – it’s all inside a 430-page manual. 
 
Merchantz is asked if he gets calls from manufacturing shops where there is a job opening for bright young people familiar with new industrial technology.
 
“Constantly,” he said. “After this year’s graduation, I got calls from three different companies.” A couple of those graduates got placed. He said some companies are only looking for part-time help but that’s an excellent way to get experience — and make money — while continuing training in the field.
 
With the Haas mill, Merchantz said “we can create anything we want. Parts for machines. Widgets. The only limit is in creativity.”
 
Changes in the workplace in recent decades have created a new industrial landscape, Merchantz said.
 
“It’s time to modernize and that is what’s happening with advanced manufacturing,” he said. “This is not what existed for our fathers or grandfathers. We’ve come a long way in the last 20 years. It’s not dirty or dark anymore.”
 
‘You have to work your way up. You have to earn it’
Angelina Lopez says she first learned about cars, and tools, from her uncle, a mechanic. She first learned about H-F’s Auto Club in eighth grade, when she visited the Voyage to Excellence, an annual presentation that shows incoming students all the activities available to them in high school.
 
By the time she graduates in 2019, Lopez will have taken all seven automotive classes at H-F. She plans to attend Southern Illinois University–Carbondale, which is known for its automotive program. After that, she wants to work in the automotive industry, possibly in an office.
 
Michael Pennick also wants to attend the SIU-Carbondale program but doesn’t like the idea of working in an office all day.
 
Lopez, Pennick and senior Eric Ray, of Flossmoor, recently spoke with the H-F Chronicle during a Friday afternoon Auto Club meeting. Ray is the club president. Lopez is vice president and Pennick is the external affairs officer.
 
As Auto Club members, Lopez and Ray last summer worked on H-F’s 1997 Mustang. It was, Ray said, a great experience. The renovation project took place for multiple hours on Mondays. Ben May, the automotive teacher, was always there when work was going on.
 
Ray helped rebuild the front of the engine and worked on the transmission. Lopez helped with the electrical work, sometimes soldering in a tiny space in the front of the car.
 
Club members completely rebuilt the car during the last two years, May said. It has a new engine, drive train, suspension, brakes and electrical system. In 2018, students will transport the car to the Byron drag strip for four competitive events on the quarter mile track. May said the races only last about 12 seconds but that the Mustang can reach a speed of about 100 mph.

The students were asked what they’d tell students who were thinking of joining Auto Club.
 
“It’s all about dedication,” Lopez said.
 
“Don’t be afraid to think you don’t know something,” Ray added. 
 
In the Auto Club, “You have to work your way up. You have to earn it,” he explained, adding: “You learn a lot of life lessons. You have to know how to talk to people.”
 
The automotive classes and the Auto Club emphasize problem solving with “a lot of critical thinking going on here,” Lopez said.
 
As an underclassman, Lopez spent hours cleaning the shop while older, more experienced students worked on cars. She realized she had to “do the nitty gritty” and stuck with it. 
“I wanted to learn,” she said.
 
Now the Auto Club feels “almost like family” to her. After many Friday club sessions, members go out to eat together, often with May.
 
As classmates and club members, the students are used to working together, she said.
 
“And when something doesn’t work, we all go ‘darn’ together.”   
 

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