New Sierra College classes are meeting ski industry needs | SierraSun.com

New Sierra College classes are meeting ski industry needs

Christine Stanley
Sierra Sun
Jason Kelley/Sierra SunStudents listen to instructor Steve Hunter, professor emeritus of computer integrated electronics at Sierra College, where he has taught for more than 30 years.
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Local ski areas are about to get the fix they’ve been craving ” a new wave of professionally trained lift mechanics who will help to meet the industry’s dire demand for workers.

Nearly two dozen local and out-of-area students went to Sugar Bowl Ski Area this week to participate in a customized mechatronics course aimed at meeting the needs of the ski areas, and developed and taught by Sierra College professors.

“We don’t have anyone coming through the door that knows how to deal with the technology of these (ski) lifts,” said Erik Shellman, lift maintenance supervisor for Northstar-at-Tahoe.

And with 50 million people on ropeways ” trams, gondolas and chairlifts ” in California each year, the skill set of a lift mechanic is paramount for the safety of skiers.

Sierra’s mechatronics program, an umbrella study of pneumatics, hydraulics, mechanics, electrical engineering and computer systems, is one of only five or so in the nation, and has been so popular with local employers that, after taking only one of four semesters of the program, every student has been hired.

“On the day of the final, I had interviewers coming into class,” said Steve Hunter, professor of computer integrated electronics at Sierra College’s Truckee campus. “Every student has gotten a job, and they didn’t even have to walk out the door.”

The demand came as no surprise to Hunter and the industry professionals he was working with to build the program. With veteran mechanics retiring and technology continuing to evolve, dozens of industries are starved for young, professionally skilled replacements, he said.

Chairlifts that once ran with two bull wheels and a steel rope now operate via advanced computer systems with dozens of sensors, detachable chairs and electrical systems.

“The complexity is too difficult to learn in a short period,” said program coordinator Marshall Lewis of the need for in-depth training. “The more opportunities we can provide for good paying jobs in this community, the better off we’ll be.”

And Sierra College’s mechatronics certificate, which is currently offered in four semesters at the Rocklin campus, and will soon be available in phases at the Tahoe/Truckee Center, isn’t just fit for the ski industry. In fact, dozens of professionals from the computer, robotic, manufacturing, automobile and other technical fields have been hopping on Sierra’s mechatronics bandwagon.

“These skills are translatable. This is just one application of the mechatronics concept,” said Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski industry Association.

When the program was in its infancy, major corporations from across the state clamored to voice their needs and expectations. They even supplied the college with $600,000 in equipment donations and curriculum development assistance to get the program started.

Chief among them was the NEC Corporation, an international company that manufactures computers and semi conductors; and Schilling Robotics, LLC, a company that designs and manufactures underwater robots used for servicing oil rigs and pipelines. The region’s Indian casinos were on board too, looking for qualified workers to repair thousands of slot machines.

An additional $600,000 grant was provided by the state chancellor’s office.

“Our vision is that this will grow (in Truckee) to a substantial program that will serve not only the needs of Tahoe and Mammoth ski areas, but of the West,” Roberts said. “And Sierra College is in the position to be the perfect partner.”

The college’s Truckee campus will offer an additional ski industry-specific five-day course in July, and will begin providing a full mechatronics curriculum in the fall, Marshall said.

“Everybody is so stoked about this program,” he said. “Hopefully it is the beginning of many programs to come.”