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Associate program’s potential benefits, value can rival or exceed that of a bachelor’s

John Kemic, 26, of McHenry, is working toward a two-year degree in Computer Numerical Controlled Machining and Robotics at McHenry County College. He currently works at Crystal Lake Chrysler Jeep Dodge, as a car detailer.
John Kemic, 26, of McHenry, is working toward a two-year degree in Computer Numerical Controlled Machining and Robotics at McHenry County College. He currently works at Crystal Lake Chrysler Jeep Dodge, as a car detailer.

John Kemic of McHenry spends his days detailing cars at Crystal Lake Chrysler Jeep Dodge, and his evenings working toward an associate degree.

The 26-year-old Kemic had previously worked as a machine operator, but found he wasn’t advancing without a degree or certificate.

“It takes time and money to teach somebody,” Kemic said. “There’s only so much you can teach someone during a 40-hour work week, while still doing production.”

So he started looking to go back to school and to learn about a computer numerical controls. Kemic said he wants to be machine programmer and set up machines and tools, and make sure they’re running correctly, before handing it over to an operator.

“It’s challenging,” Kemic said of his CNC machining course. “It makes you think outside the box. You kind of have to think how a machine would think.”

Even though people with four-year degrees make 98 percent more an hour than people without a degree, there is value in having a two-year degree.

People with associate degrees work in industries such as health care, finance, and retail and wholesale trade industries, McHenry County College Marketing Specialist Paula Lauer said.

Lauer added vocational jobs in construction, welding, plumbing, and heating and air conditioning installation, all are starting to require vocational training found at community colleges.

Stephen O’Connor is the grant coordinator for MCC’s Computer Numerical Controlled Machining and Robotics programs.

The goals of the grant are to bring manufacturing back to Illinois and put displaced and unemployed workers back to work in Illinois, O’Connor said.

Students can receive a certificate or continue on and complete a two-year degree, O’Connor said.

“It focuses on what they need to know,” O’Connor said.

Many people in the program are older workers who don’t need or want a four-year degree.

“They have a family and need training as quickly as possible,” O’Connor said.

He added there is a lot of demand for workers with CNC certification. Those who finish an associate degree might even see opportunities for management roles, O’Connor said.

“It depends if they want a managerial position if they wanted to go a little higher,” O’Connor said.

He added some people who work as CNC machinists can earn $60,000 to $70,000 a year once they’re in their late 30s or early 40s.

“They make more than I ever made,” said O’Connor, who has a master’s degree in training and development.

Many of them can work their way up to $25 to $30 an hour, after a starting wage of $14 to $15 an hour for someone without experience, O’Connor said.

“It’s a fantastic entry-level job,” O’Connor said. “Over time, you show your employer your value, they will pay you more.”

Brock Steffen, 19, of Crystal Lake works as an auto mechanic, but he is still going to school at MCC to earn a two-year degree in technical engineering.

While working with a CNC lathe, he punches numbers and commands onto a computer screen, including the dimensions and angles of a part he’s making.

Steffen prefers hands-on work, he said.

“I found that not all bachelor’s degrees are all they’re hyped up to be,” Steffen said. “A lot of times when you have a hands-on, applied-sciences degree or associate’s degree, ... that can [have] greater long-term benefit.”

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