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Clinton Given Quick Lesson in Machine Class


Valley College professor Glenn Thomas had a special student last week: President Clinton.

But instead of a full semester, Thomas had only about 15 minutes to teach the President about operating machines by computer--a high-tech process that is dramatically changing the way firms manufacture all sorts of products, from bolts to aircraft.

Clinton picked Thomas' class to visit during his two-day Southern California trip because it represents the sort of cutting-edge training the President hopes will help displaced workers find jobs and give America back its competitive edge, White House aides said.

Instead of drawing products on paper, then manipulating machine tools by hand to build them, designers use a computer to design what they want to make. The computer's software then instructs machine tools to cut and shape the product.

Traditional machinists use their hands to control the lathes and mills that shape metal, but the skill of modern machinists "comes in manipulating the computer," Thomas said.

The precision of a computer makes it possible to produce the same product, one after another, without the occasional mistakes humans make as a result of carelessness or accident, Thomas said. As a result, the computer manufacturing process is faster and cheaper.

That is the pitch Clinton came to hear, and Thomas obliged. He showed off the 1940s-era machines that are still used in the campus lab--slow, inaccurate and even dangerous compared to the modern equipment.

"Then the President asked me, 'Where did you get the money to buy this equipment?' And I told him it was mostly federal funds," Thomas said. "I hope he heard that."

The federal money, earmarked for vocational training, has provided Valley College with some of the most sophisticated equipment in the field, including a $120,000 computer-driven, slant-bed turret lathe with six different cutting tools.

"This is brand new on the market," said Thomas, who holds degrees in geological engineering, paleontology and industrial engineering applications.

Thomas has put a stereo lithography machine on his wish list. The $250,000 system bypasses machine tools altogether, creating three-dimensional prototypes using lasers and liquid plastic.

The pricey equipment stands out on the campus, which, along with the rest of California's public colleges, has suffered from several years of declining state funding. Thomas had to build a contraption made of a funnel, pipe and clamps to keep a roof leak from ruining the books in his office this winter.

"We've got great equipment, but when it comes to this?" Thomas pointed to the water-stained ceiling and shrugged, saying there was little money to be had.

Thomas, who has taught at Valley College for 25 years, said that inconvenience doesn't bother him much, as long as the laboratories are up to date.

Most of Thomas' students are already working in industry and they range in age from the mid-20s to mid-30s. The training allows them to get better jobs and earn raises, with most of the computer operators earning between $15 and $25 an hour, he said.

There is always a waiting list for the class, Thomas said. Most of the firms with openings for such skills do not want to spend the money to train employees.

But even learning the ways of computerized manufacturing is no guarantee of getting a job in Southern California, Thomas said. With the region's economy suffering from cuts in defense spending and the recession, even those with state of the art skills but little experience may find getting a job to be difficult.

Before the current slump, Thomas' students routinely found jobs here that paid $25 and more an hour. Now, the higher-paying jobs are outside of California, in states such as Washington, Texas and Georgia.

But Thomas did not have enough time to ask the President about that. Later, Clinton vowed to help California out of its slump.

Looking back, Thomas still shakes his head at the presidential visit with a combination of awe and exasperation. He had to cancel two days of classes during the last week of school. Workers came in to build temporary risers for camera crews and the White House staff. The whole entourage barely fit into the engineering lab.

"He took 15 minutes after five days of preparations," said Thomas. "I would never want to do that again. Not even for the President."

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