Manufacturing pathway launched at GCU to meet big need

Lux Precision Manufacturing founder and CEO Weston Smith gives program participants a tour of what will be the company’s new workspace in Building 66 during the recent CNC Machinist Pathway information session.

Photos by Ralph Freso

Elizabeth Lopez Flores worked in a Phoenix call center, so when she heard about a new manufacturing pathway at Grand Canyon University, she summoned the courage to give it a shot.

“Just to be able to do hands-on work, where I actually make something, create something,” she said.

Program participant Elizabeth Lopez Flores answers questions during an interview for the CNC Machinist Pathway.

Flores is one of 20 participants who will begin study in September for the CNC Machinist Pathway at GCU. Launched with financial support from manufacturer Benchmark, the 15-week program prepares participants to learn computer numerical control (CNC), which uses computers to precision manufacture parts, a trade in high demand.

“There are not enough manufacturing employees in the world at this point,” Senior Vice President of Student Success Dr. Joe Veres said. “If you get in this trade pathway, we have industry partners that are looking to hire immediately.”

It’s an additional step into workforce development in trades at GCU, which started in fall 2022 with its Pre-Apprenticeship for Electricians program that has, so far, prepared 80 participants to become apprentices in the electrician trade — with another 120 students expected in the coming year.

The CNC program will be housed in Building 66 at GCU’s 27th Avenue and Camelback Road complex, where remodeling is underway to create an expanded facility for Lux Precision Manufacturing, founded and led by GCU graduate Weston Smith. Lux uses CNC to manufacture parts for medical, aerospace and semiconductor industries, among others.

Participants will work as paid interns with Lux at the facility while they study in two sessions of evening courses in CNC, math, and written and verbal communications courses.

“What a CNC machinist does is subtract, take raw stock, such as aluminum or steel, and remove material to get to the final part,” Smith told the group in a recent information session. “A CNC machinist works with precision, dimensions that can be as small at 1/10,000 of an inch.

“As a CNC machinist, you will not be the person who sits at the computer all day, although you might touch it a bit. You plug the blueprint into the machine and make sure it creates that part and adjust offsets to control the end product.”

Bryce Krohmer (left) looks over a CNC milling machine with other program participants at Lux Precision Manufacturing.

One of the best parts, he added, is getting paid to learn, and the course costs are covered.

That can happen, Veres explains, because industry partners like Benchmark help fund GCU’s model, which will eventually supply those partners with committed employees.

Too often, people see the pay for manufacturing and jump in quickly after the company spends money in recruitment and training, only to decide it’s not for them after a short time, he said. “Every contractor knows if they are with us for 15 weeks, they want to be in manufacturing.”

Benchmark, a company that serves medical, electronics, defense and numerous other industries, is committed to hiring 10 people who have completed the program.

Ed Bradley was so intrigued after hearing about it from Flores, his girlfriend, that he sought out the scholarship to attend, too.

“I’ve been in the car industry for like 17 years, and machining is big with that,” he said. “I bought a piece of commercial land, and I want to get into recycling. Get the metal, strip it, cut it. A CNC machine, it can make a big difference.”

Program Manager Shelly Seitz tells participants of the CNC Machinist Pathway.

William Lange, GCU’s Director of Analytics and Technology, oversees the trade programs, while his team of Mickey Nuñez and Shelly Seitz are program managers.

“We are in the classrooms with you. We help guide you,” Nuñez told them. “We want to make sure each and every one of you succeed and are ready to be employed in January.”

Seitz added that participants are a part of GCU — free to join campus events, use dining and fitness facilities, and enjoy the college atmosphere.

It certainly isn’t the image of manufacturing many can have, forging metal in a loud, hot facility, or standing on an assembly line.

Smith stood before a small, glass-enclosed milling machine flanked by a computer screen in the makeshift space for Lux as automated arms moved bits to cut metal for a part.

“One of our companies makes heart stints and balloons, and we make the parts for the machine that makes those parts,” he said of the final product.

It’s the kind of work that excites Bryce Krohmer of Phoenix.

“It was a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor and learn something as opposed to when you get into a company and not everyone has on-the-job training,” he said. “It’s a blessing of an opportunity.”

Veres said some participants, who are more suited to working independently, were informed of the CNC pathway from the electricians program.

Participants range from mid-career workers looking for a change to younger people who may see it as an entry into four-year college engineering programs.

Joshua Olivares of Chandler, along with his mother, Callista Olivares, were happy to find the CNC Machinist Pathway.

That’s the case for recent high school graduate Joshua Olivares, who attended the orientation with his mom, Callista.

“It would have been impossible to me to pursue a four-year degree off minimum wage jobs, so doing a trade here is perfect,” he said. “I can go straight into a trade program, not only so I can afford college classes, but I also wanted to have a good basis for understanding engineering.”

The new Lux facility is expected to eventually house more than 20 machines and be ready when classes begin in September.

Another 20 participants are expected in the spring semester to eventually fill an industry demand.

“There is such a critical need for skilled labor in the workforce, and nobody is stepping up to address it. So everywhere we went, people are blown away that this is a university that is tackling the trade deficit,” Veres said.

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected]


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GCU News: GCU is intentional in its job-focused curriculum


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