Monmouth County Vocational students learn about advanced manufacturing in unique location

For Jordan Varcadipane, who graduated from Monmouth Regional High School this spring, going to straight to college after high school was never his goal.

Instead, he wanted to join the workforce, and landed an entry-level job with a local company, Shore Printed Circuits in Eatontown, where he works soldering and quality-checking circuit boards.

Varcadipane knew exactly what the job entailed because he worked as an intern at the company during high school. 

As a shared-time student at Monmouth County Vocational School District, Varcadipane spent his junior and senior years enrolled for part of the day in the district’s advanced manufacturing program.

The classroom, located in a low-slung building in an industrial park in Eatontown owned by Festo Didactic Inc., is filled with equipment designed to teach mechatronics, programmable logic controllers, computer-aided design, computer-aided manufacturing, computer numerical controls and other high-tech, high-demand skills needed in today’s manufacturing industry.

For Varcadipane, it was the perfect classroom for his style of learning.

“It’s definitely more hands-on here because the only hands-on class I had at Monmouth Regional was a pre-engineering course — everything else was book work,” he said. “Here, I’ve learned the skills to operate a hydraulic machinery, I know the program PLCs. I think it’s something more beneficial than a book could ever teach you.”

The classroom is the result of a unique partnership between the district and Festo, which creates automation systems for industry as well as the technical training equipment. The district was looking to start a program to address local manufacturers’ needs for skilled technicians, but the lack of space and the high cost of outfitting a lab were major obstacles.  

When district leaders toured Festo Didactic’s facility, it clicked. They asked the company to host the program in its state-of-the-art facility.

“For Festo Didactic, working with the district is great opportunity to interact with students and staff on a daily basis,” said said Mike Nager, business development manager at Festo. “Even though we provide technical training equipment and curriculum literally around the world, it is very much an opportunity for us to prepare the next generation workforce right here in our home state for careers in manufacturing.”

Stefany Gurgel, the instructor for the advanced manufacturing program, said many students and parents don’t understand how much manufacturing has changed and how many jobs are available in New Jersey in the industry.

“Manufacturing is transitioning into technology and automation and it involves a lot more of thinking, brainstorming and problem solving than just assembling, disassembling and packaging — the regular old manufacturing style,” said Gurgel, a civil engineer by training who became a career and technical education teacher through the alternate route. “There are so many different pathways and different jobs in manufacturing.”

Denise Kebeck, who recently retired as the principal of Monmouth County Vocational’s shared-time programs, said students enrolled in the advanced manufacturing program can either go straight into industry or continue to college.

“We can provide opportunity for students to attain skills necessary to enter the job force. However, if they choose to go on to higher education, they now have a skill that can support them as they go on to higher education,” Kebeck said. 

“Not only are the students in our program acquiring industry-recognized certifications from Festo, OSHA and in CAD, they are also going to articulated college-level programs and earning college credits. So, it supports whatever pathway they choose.”

Another shared-time student, Mario Olivera, graduated from Long Branch High School and attends Brookdale Community College, where he is studying industrial engineering. When he graduates, he hopes to continue his education at New Jersey Institute of Technology to study industrial engineering.

Olivera said being enrolled in the advanced manufacturing program helped him learn about how different machines work and the manufacturing process and sparked his interest in industrial engineering.

“There’s a smooth transition from advanced manufacturing to industrial engineering,” Olivera said. “A lot of the same concepts are in each of them.”