When students, teachers, and local business join forces, the manufacturing industry wins

Education Success Story

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Image courtesy of HFW Industries

Forging new pathways for manufacturing careers

In a world where the manufacturing industry is in constant flux, the need for skilled workers has never been greater. Collaboration between local businesses, educational institutions, and ambitious students is reshaping the future of manufacturing and giving rise to a new generation of skilled professionals.

Orleans Career and Technical Education Center’s Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering program is one example of this success. It provides students with hands-on opportunities to learn CNC machining and Autodesk Fusion 360. Deep partnerships with local businesses provide real-world, on-the-job training for students that result in full-time manufacturing careers. Former student Anthony Cercone, his teacher Bill Rakonczay, and his new CNC supervisor Michael Auquier at HFW Industries share their experience.

Anthony Cercone and Bill Rakonczay celebrate the win at SkillsUSA

Anthony Cercone with his SkillsUSA gold medal and Bill Rakonczay. Courtesy of Bill Rakonczay.

Bringing home the gold

High school student Anthony Cercone and his teacher Bill Rakonczay were seated in Atlanta’s massive Georgia World Congress Center anxiously awaiting the results of the SkillsUSA competition. It’s the pinnacle event for career and technical education with more than 6,000 state champions from across the country going head-to-head in 115 competitions.

Cercone was competing in the CNC 3-axis milling category. He felt confident in his performance and hoped to make it into the top 10. After a long wait, the announcement for the winners of the manufacturing categories finally began. He was called to the stage for the top three.

“After the bronze and silver medals were given out, I kept clapping and then the math hit me,” Cercone says. “I realized that I had won the gold medal, and I was the national champion.”

Equipment inside manufacturing and engineering lab

Newly renovated Gene Haas Advanced Manufacturing Engineering Lab at Orleans Career and Technical Education Center. Courtesy of Bill Rakonczay.

Experiencing an “a-ha” career moment

Cercone’s road to becoming a SkillsUSA national champion started when he was a sophomore. After expressing an interest in mechanical engineering, his guidance counselor mentioned a field trip to Orleans Career and Technical Education Center in Medina, New York. “Like any high school student, I was up for a day to go somewhere outside school,” he says.

Stepping foot in Rakonczay’s Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering class and machine shop was a transformative moment. Cercone immediately knew that he wanted to train to become a machinist and pursue a career in manufacturing.

Under Rakonczay’s guidance, the two-year program includes a traditional manufacturing curriculum, Fusion 360 training for CNC programming and machining, and real-world job co-ops with a network of local businesses. Thanks to a $250,000 grant from the Gene Haas Foundation, students will also now work in the newly renovated Gene Haas Advanced Manufacturing Engineering Lab on campus.   

“We’re the first career and technical school to receive this type of grant,” Rakonczay says. “We have new lighting, flooring, lockers, bathrooms, and more. It’s all state-of-the art, and we’re really proud of it.”

Discovering Fusion 360

Rakonczay has been an instructor at Orleans Career and Technical Education Center for more than 30 years. He also recently received an award of his own when he was named the first Haas Educator of the Year by the Gene Haas Foundation 

Over the course of his teaching career, he’s watched and adapted as the industry transforms. About eight years ago, he first came across Fusion 360 and decided to give it a try.

“I started playing around with Fusion 360, and it was the best thing that's ever happened to me as an instructor,” Rakonczay says. “Fusion 360 is much more user-friendly. There are way more avenues to showcase what the software and machines can do. It's really changed everything and turned my whole class upside down for the better.”

Students work on laptops with an education license for Fusion 360. With 10 Haas CNC machines in the shop, all students can draw their parts and program in Fusion 360, take the G-code to the machines, verify their code, and run the parts. One of the biggest benefits is the fact that they can also use Fusion 360 at home, enhancing the learning experience.

“I could have gone to Mastercam a million times, but I wasn't ever sold on it,” Rakonczay says. “But I was sold when I started learning Fusion 360 and realized how it's portable and you can use it at home.”

As a student learning Fusion 360, Cercone became a fan right away. “One of the best parts of Fusion 360 is just how easy it is to use the CAD and draw,” he says.

“The great part about Mr. Rakonczay’s class is his connections to the industry and the co-op. Those are phenomenal. That co-op job was huge for me because it let me see what actual manufacturing is—not just what I'm doing in class.”

Anthony Cercone, CNC machinist, HFW Industries

Man programming CNC machine

Anthony Cercone working at HFW Industries. Image courtesy of HFW Industries.

Solving the skills shortage

The goal of Orleans Career and Technical Education Center’s manufacturing program is to not only prepare students for a career, but also help fulfill the specific needs for skilled workers.

Local businesses, the school, and students have a symbiotic relationship. An advisory council comprised of representatives from the local industry collaborates to identify skills gaps and actively guide curriculum development, equipment training, and other essential aspects. A work-based coordinator from the school visits companies to build relationships even further.

Rakonczay has built a network of 20 businesses that hire students for the last semester of their senior year. Students participate in a job fair and interview with companies to land a paid co-op position. They then spend four days a week working and one day back in the classroom. Many students are hired full-time right after graduation.

Two men programming a CNC machine

Michael Auquier and Anthony Cercone working together at HFW Industries. Image courtesy of HFW Industries.

Realizing the benefits of manufacturing training

After Cercone’s whirlwind week of winning a gold medal and graduating high school, he started his first job at HFW Industries as a full-time CNC machinist. The fourth-generation business in Buffalo, New York creates parts for a wide array of customers and industries, including textile, gas, power generation, and more.

Cercone is one of the first of two Orleans Career and Technical Education Center graduates the shop has hired. His manager, Michael Auquier, is the CNC supervisor at HFW and is impressed with both Cercone’s experience level and the education provided with the manufacturing program. The fact that he already came equipped with a background in Fusion 360 is a real benefit.

“It's been a blessing having this program because they know so much already,” Auquier says. “It just helps so much knowing that we're getting good, qualified people. My advice to other shops out there invested in technology is to keep an eye open for these co-ops and the kids that are up and coming. There is a lot of talent out there, and I’m really impressed. Anthony is doing a fantastic job.”