Tyler Willoughby followed the crowd after graduating high school. He enrolled in college, figuring that’s the next logical step.
Slightly more than half of high school graduates start college, according to information supplied by colleges statewide. Census Bureau data shows 1 in 4 Oklahomans complete a bachelor’s degree or higher by age 25.
Willoughby, a Union City High School graduate, was relegated to a statistic when he dropped out of college. He said college was just not the right fit for him. He turned to part-time work rebuilding clutches in his grandfather’s shop. The work was not so bad. He was drawing a paycheck, and he got to spend time with a beloved family member.
Still, Willoughby, 26, wanted more. It was as if his life was stuck in second gear.
He researched options online and discovered he could attend tuition-free at Canadian Valley Technology Center. Willoughby liked working with his hands, and he chose to pursue machining as a career.
Machinists use manual or computer controlled lathes or milling machines to produce precise parts made of aluminum and steel, such as those used in automobiles. Some jobs require the use of rarer titanium, which is commonly found in aircraft parts and orthopedic screws. Some machinists manufacture parts for military tanks and jets.
Willoughby said he was hooked soon after enrolling in Precision Machining at CV Tech’s El Reno Campus. He attended classes part-time in the morning so he could still work at night. Adults have the option to enroll a half-day or a full day. He completed the program in 2015 but had already been working part-time in the machining industry.
“My instructor has a good connection with the industry,” he said. “He lined me up with a job at a well-rounded job shop with a good mix of CNC (Computerized Numerical Control) and conventional machining with an intelligent machinist who helped further my machining knowledge.”
Willoughby said he later found his career niche by plugging into the vibrant music scene of the south central Texas capital city of Austin, which is marketed as “The Live Music Capital of the World.” He was hired to manufacture musical instruments inside a 27,000-square-foot machine shop for Collings Guitars. Their customer list includes the likes of rock and roll legends Brian May (of Queen), Pete Townshend (co-founder of The Who), Joni Mitchell, Robert Earl Keen and country superstar George Strait.
“Being a machinist is an absolute blast,” Willoughby said. “Collings has deep ties with Texas and the local music industry dating back to the late 70’s and early 80’s.
“I’ve made stuff for Grammy winners and households names to studio artists that you’ve never heard of. It’s great being able to come in and work with my hands to make things of actual value to other people, along with a never-ending learning curve that guarantee me a challenge every day.”
The median annual wage (half earn more, half less) for machinists or tool and die makers is between $45,750, or between $22 per hour, according to information supplied from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which also predicts modest job growth over the next 10 years.
“The money is good if you work hard, learn from your mistakes and you don’t mind getting a little dirty,” he said. “To me, machining is more about you rather than the actual job. If you like precision, learning how things work and working with your hands, it’ll probably be a good fit.”
Both the El Reno and Chickasha campuses offer a Precision Machining program. Tuition is free for high school students and adults under age 24, who live in the school’s district area and who have a high school diploma or equivalent. Modest fees and book costs are required. Adult students will want to choose the campus closest to them. To speak with a career counselor, call (405) 262-2629.