Pedro Ruvalcaba often worked 20 to 30 hours a week while taking a full load of undergraduate classes at Ivy Tech Community College.
It paid then. And it pays now.
Ruvalcaba interned at Tower Structural Laminating in Ligonier for more than a year, helping with programming and other tasks for the manufacturing company.
This spring, he became part of the first class of students to complete Ivy Tech’s Advanced Automation and Robotics Technology program.
And having earned an associate degree of applied science in advanced automation and robotics, Ruvalcaba also became a full-time employee at Tower Structural.
"He’s definitely a win for us," Rob Taylor, general manager at Tower Structural, said last week.
"We’ve got a very high-tech plant. … He helped with a lot of our programming in the different (work) centers and upgrading some of the software into newer versions and the programs to match."
Tower Structural makes fiberglass reinforced plywood panels for the transportation industry, such as U-Haul trucks. It’s one of many employers that Ivy Tech believes might benefit from students participating in the automation and robotics program, or AART.
Graduates will have programmable logic controller, robotics, electrical, pneumatic and control system skills.
Each week, AART students will typically spend three days in the classroom and two days working an internship that pays $12 to $17 an hour.
Ivy Tech Northeast in Fort Wayne is one of 16 of the college system’s advanced manufacturing centers to offer AART, which launched in the fall of 2014.
Ivy Tech said the program was developed in collaboration with the Indiana Automotive Council, a group that includes Chrysler, Cummins, General Motors and Honda. The goal is to provide education and hands-on training aligned with employer needs, which include workers with problem-solving skills.
The new program replaces a 60-credit-hour curriculum that was called Advanced Manufacturing, said Robert Parker, advanced automation and robotics technology department chairman.
Ivy Tech still has a 60-credit-hour industrial technology program.
Based on rapid technology changes and employer interest in additional precise skills, Parker hopes more students – depending on career interest – will invest the additional 15 hours for AART.
"In today’s industrial manufacturing environment, things are becoming so advanced that the extra 15 credit hours the student is spending is going to help them be more effective and productive," Parker said. "It pays off immediately upon graduation."
A Ball State University study released earlier this month said Indiana leads the nation in advanced manufacturing with more than half the state’s manufacturing jobs falling within 35 industries that The Brookings Institution has classified as advanced, including drug, steel, vehicle and medical device manufacturing.
In 2013, that meant 243,597 advanced manufacturing jobs in 2,548 Indiana workplaces. Statewide, 8.4 percent of the workforce was in advanced manufacturing. Jobs in that area include engineering, welding and mechanical design. The jobs are considered less likely to be sent overseas.
Fourteen students started in Ivy Tech’s AART program and six graduated this year. Six others are still enrolled, completing program requirements, and Parker said two decided to change majors.
Most Ivy Tech associate degree programs require about 60 credit hours to complete. The AART program requires an additional 15 credit hours of coursework to increase the expertise in troubleshooting and automated areas, including robotics and programmable logic controller systems.
Ruvalcaba describes the programmable logic controllers, also known as PLCs, essentially as computers used to control heavy and automated machinery.
"With today’s factories, everything’s automated," he said. "The more automated, the better production, more consistencies."
The AART program does not require but students can earn up to five industry certifications in areas related to safety, production, robotics maintenance and quality, Ivy Tech said.
The goal is for program graduates to transition from internships to full-time, entry level jobs with salaries ranging from $30,000 to $60,000.
Ruvalcaba, 22, started college at Ball State University, to study pre-law.
With class sizes large and feeling less potential to connect to instructors, he re-evaluated not just where he might earn a degree, but also his career plan.
Ivy Tech was appealing, Ruvalcaba said, because of the cost and ability to live at home with his parents.
A career test piqued his interest in automation and robotics. And when Ruvalcaba heard Tower Structural wanted interns, it was an ideal match. He lives in Ligonier where the company has a plant.
While he probably averaged 20 hours a week as an intern, Ruvalcaba said Tower Structural was flexible with his school requirements. Some weeks he didn’t work at all. But there were weeks when it was full time, such as when Ruvalcaba helped with some programming work at an affiliate plant in the Dallas area, refurbishing a machine with new controls.
Ruvalcaba, who said he had two great mentors at Tower Structural, didn’t let the internship sidetrack his academic performance.
"I always had school as a priority. I’m paying for school, so I don’t want to work that many hours and flunk out," Ruvalcaba recalled thinking. "I remember a few semesters, I got all As."
And now, he’s no longer the intern, but an employee.