New class tailored to recreation industry |

New class tailored to recreation industry

Emma Garrard/Sierra SunBen Luther, lift maintenance supervisor for Sugar Bowl, adjusts the flow controls for the brake system in the motor room of the Disney Express lift at the resort Thursday. Along with other maintenance workers at the ressort, Luther has taken a course in mechatronics.

Sierra Nevada resorts may be the beneficiary of a new vocational course at Sierra College in Truckee to train skilled employees for the region’s recreational industry.

Starting in January, the Rocklin-based community college will partner with Tahoe Truckee High School to offer high-tech classes to high school students and adult learners as part of a instructional program dubbed Mechatronics.

Trustee Bev Ducey of the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District said the new vocational training will provide a pathway for local high school graduates who choose not to attend college.

“They can acquire the skills needed to set them up in an entry level job in the area,” Ducey said. “This is [also] important for adult learners because it gives them a chance to upgrade their skills.”

The class will meet at Tahoe Truckee High School until the college completes construction of its new Truckee campus.

Technical Director Marshall Lewis of the California Ski Industry Association said the skills taught in the class will be valuable in such business sectors as golfing, gaming and public utility industries.

Shawn Wessels, a lift technician at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort, is a recent graduate of the two-year Mechatronics course at the school’s Rocklin campus. He said his supervisor snatched him away from a lower-paying position as a lift operator when he learned about Wessels’ training.

“They are only allowed to touch five buttons,” Wessels said of a lift operator’s duties.

Now, with his hands on all of the buttons, Wessels earns better money.

And, sometimes, the rookie technician advises him, said Lift Maintenance Supervisor Ben Luther, Wessels’ boss.

“Sometimes I’ll ask [Shawn] about electronics,” Luther said.

Luther also attended a 40-hour ski-industry vocational course this summer, one subsidized by Sugar Bowl to help its staff keep up with the industry’s changing technology.

“I see it as helpful to any industry utilizing automation,” said Sugar Bowl Director of Resort Operations Paul Borcherding.

The program to be offered at Sierra College’s Truckee annex is an abridged version of Rocklin’s two-year program. At Truckee High, students will be offered three classes for nine units in a college-level program that awards them a certificate and an internship on completion.

The students will learn about mechanical, electronic, pneumatic and hydraulic systems and how to control them by computer commands. The technical-sounding “mechatronics” belies its unassuming origin, according to the ski industry’s Lewis.

“Mechatronics is a term used for decades in China and Europe,” Lewis said.

While vocational training has received less of an emphasis in the United States, the new course prepares students to enter specialized fields without earning a four-year degree.

“The purpose is to give the person the foundation to learn more intense technical skills [on the job],” said Lewis.

And training technicians at a school in the middle of ski country could benefit an important local industry.

“Our best bet is to grow our own,” Lewis said.

That’s a sentiment echoed by General Manager Rick Lierman of the Squaw Valley Public Service District, who sees a looming deficit in skilled technicians.

“Over at the Tahoe Truckee Sanitation District today, they have about seven openings to people at the trainee level,” Lierman said. “An [applicant’s] chances of getting a job are greatly improved by having this training.”

Lierman said applicants who have a place to live are a plus because of the area’s high cost of living. He said an employee with specialized training is more likely to be promoted because of the basic knowledge learned in the program.

And promotions may come sooner than later, according to Lewis.

“[Nationwide,] 25 to 30 percent of lead technicians are leaving,” Lewis said. “[That means] 60 percent of the institutional knowledge will leave with them.”

The class is mostly hands on and the rest is classroom lectures, according to Lewis, who is serving as a consultant for the new program.

Sierra College is sponsoring the vocational program after receiving a two-year, $250,000 grant from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

Lewis said the program will require $50,000 in capital outlay and $15,000 in materials.

“We want [the students] to take home what they make and show their parents or friends ” or use it to get a job,” said Ducey.

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