EVENDALE, Ohio – Seante Bullock let the associate's degree that she earned in applied science 15 years ago gather dust, opting instead to be a restaurant server since she was 21.
Recently, though, "I came into some heavier responsibilities, so I had to do some heavier things," she said.
Bullock, 37, pivoted to a career path that offers much better pay than waiting tables and one that's hungry for skilled workers: machine tool operating. The industry is thriving in Greater Cincinnati to the point that prospective workers can be trained in a year or less without the need for an associate's or bachelor's degree for entry-level jobs that can pay $20 an hour or more.
Meyer Tool in Cincinnati's Camp Washington neighborhood recently hired Bullock full time.
"I am nervous. Reading the job description, I thought, oh my God," she said. "But they have bigger plans for me further down the line, hopefully in robotics."
The path to that even better job at Meyer leads through a one-year apprenticeship at Cincinnati State's Workforce Development Center. The inaugural class graduated last October. The second group began Jan. 29.
Bullock is one of 10 new apprentices, all of whom have a full scholarship to complete classwork while working full time making $12-$14 an hour at machine tool companies in the Tri-State.
The companies also pay for half the tuition, and Partners for a Competitive Workforce, a United Way partner, pays the other half. That financial commitment reflects the strange reality in this so-so economy that many good-paying manufacturing jobs go unfilled in the Tri-State and throughout the country.
"Machine shops are tired of robbing people from other machine shops," Jerry Whitaker, who oversees the workforce development center's machine operator programs, said. "We have to get new blood into the field, and that's the problem we're addressing."
According to the Partners for a Competitive Workforce, half of all local businesses expect to struggle to find qualified workers for in-demand jobs in the next three to five years.
Nationwide, the PCW said, at least 3 million jobs go unfilled due to skills gap, a figure that is estimated to grow to 7 million by 2018.
The apprenticeship's rigorous schedule includes 40 hours of work in machine shops, usually 10-hour shifts Monday through Thursday, followed by eight hours of classwork on Fridays at the Workforce Development Center in Evendale.
The first class of apprentices in 2015 started with eight students, and seven of them completed the training. Steven Huber, 20, was one of those graduates.
"I worked at a drive-through making $8.75 an hour. And, of course, any young gun who's 19 years old wants to better himself," he said.
When he completed the training, Huber took a job at Reliance Medical Supplies that more than doubled his fast-food restaurant hourly wage. And with a shortage of other good workers, he takes full advantage, working about 18 hours overtime each week. He makes the bases for doctor's examination chairs, Huber said.
"I jumped into it, and I ended up loving it," he said.
Classroom work begins with four hours of mathematics and four hours of blueprint basics. The math is all directly applicable to their jobs, like learning how to calculate area and volume, for example.
I hope what I'm doing is keeping it for different strategies employed at whatever level.
"I try to tailor it to the individual student, to throw it out there at a basic level and then some might know a little about what I'm talking about," said Yvonne Wabbington, who teaches math.
The diverse group of students includes eight men and two women and includes immigrants from Vietnam and Puerto Rico.
Ron Meyer, an industry veteran who is teaching the apprentices blueprint-making and, eventually, how to operate lathes, scythes and other machine tools, told the group that they're entering manufacturing at an exciting time of innovation and opportunity.
"Hold onto your hats because it's going to be an amazing future for you. I want to get you comfortable with the technological end of manufacturing. It's a very interesting industry," he said.