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Aerospace training program opens up workers' choices

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By Michelle Dunlop
Herald Writer
Published:
  • Paul Thornton cuts the legs for a windmill he is building in a Washington Aerospace Training and Research Center class in which he has learned welding...

    Michael O'Leary / The Herald

    Paul Thornton cuts the legs for a windmill he is building in a Washington Aerospace Training and Research Center class in which he has learned welding, milling and composite material lay-up skills.

  • Paul Thornton checks the fit of parts of windmill he is making in class.

    Michael O'Leary / The Herald

    Paul Thornton checks the fit of parts of windmill he is making in class.

  • Paul Thornton welds the structure together for a windmill he is building using skills he has learned in welding, milling, and composite material lay-u...

    Michael O'Leary / The Herald

    Paul Thornton welds the structure together for a windmill he is building using skills he has learned in welding, milling, and composite material lay-up.

A car accident left Paul Thornton in a heap of pain and without a job.
Four years ago, the accident inured Thornton's back and neck, forcing the father of five to leave Florida and move closer to family in Everett. Without Thornton's income, his family lost property. For a while, they had to make do without a car.
In addition to the toll on his body and on his finances, the accident shook Thornton's confidence.
But the old Thornton slowly resurfaced as he progressed through an advanced manufacturing course taught at the Washington Aerospace Training and Research Center at Everett's Paine Field.
"It's like my brain is just opening up again," said Thornton. "My wife, she has seen a difference in me. She said, 'This is the man I married.'"
The advanced manufacturing program is the brainchild of Damian Cianci, an Edmonds Community College professor. Cianci applied for the $75,000 Workforce Investment Act grant to run the class, which is offered through Edmonds Community College's business training arm at the Everett location.
The training center opened last summer and offers aerospace training certificate programs as well as customized training for aerospace companies. The program that Cianci designed and Thornton completed isn't one of the certificates typically offered at the center, though some of the coursework was similar.
Cianci's goal was to take 12 unemployed people who have little to no manufacturing experience and give them basic knowledge of a variety of aerospace-related skills. That foundation of skills should appeal to a range of aerospace companies, including large manufacturers such as the Boeing Co. that are looking for production workers and small suppliers who may need workers with manufacturing and basic computer-assisted design experience.
Thornton, 40, has excelled in the computer-assisted design aspect of the program. It is taught using the design program CATIA, which is used by Boeing.
"I can go into CATIA and design something and come out (to the shop) and build it," he said.
That connection has helped Thornton harness his problem-solving skills, which he used during his days as warehouse manager for a construction company. Thornton has been inventing solutions to everyday problems: When he faced paying $18 for a radio knob in the older car his family finally bought, Thornton realized he could design and build two knobs at a time for a fraction of the cost of buying one. From that idea, Thornton came up with more sophisticated versions of the basic knob, including designing some for sinks and bathtubs that change color based on temperature.
"This class has just really sparked something in me," Thornton said.
The program also has opened up new possibilities for Elsie Yost, also of Everett.
For Yost, 48, aerospace will be a huge career change. She has worked mostly in retail, spending 13 years at K-Mart before moving on to Wal-Mart and then to onlineshoes.com. After more than three years at the online company, Yost was laid off last summer when the retailer relocated.
But Yost was ready for a change of pace. That meant she would need training -- like many of the students who take courses at the Everett aerospace center. She's thankful her WorkSource counselor was able to get her a spot in Cianci's advanced manufacturing certificate program.
Prior to starting the course, Yost could only identify a few basic tools. Just days away from completing the program last week, Yost said she feels confident using a band saw, welding or soldering.
"I like the shop. I like the hands-on work," she said.
The hands-on work culminated in each student building a small windmill with a metal base and composite blades. Cianci incorporated the composites aspect because of the increasing use of composites in aerospace. In 2009, Cianci began teaching a composites course in which students build snowboards. That course has been in demand nonstop by Boeing workers looking to advance within the company. Cianci recently started teaching a composites certificate program.
As she sanded the composite blades for her windmill, Yost noted how surprised many of her former retail coworkers were in her change of careers. "They couldn't believe it when I posted on Facebook that I love welding," Yost said.
The spunky grandmother of five said she hopes to find a job with a company that will allow her to put in plenty of hours. Ultimately, she would like to work at a company such as Fluke Corp., that offers good pay and benefits. That would be a change from retail, where companies have been cutting employee hours to avoid paying full benefits.
"I need to work where I can support my family," Yost said. "And I love to work."

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