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Class on Wheels Puts Computer Skills Within Workers’ Reach

Times Staff Writer

When Los Angeles Valley College agreed to bring a computer class to Lockheed Corp. in Burbank last winter, they took the assignment literally, with the help of a sturdy truck.

“We hooked the classroom up and towed it down Burbank Boulevard,” said Bill Lavoie, chairman of the college’s Engineering Department. “We set it up in the parking lot. There really wasn’t that much to it.”

For two years, as part of a state-funded retraining program, the Van Nuys campus of the Los Angeles Community College District has been taking its computer classes to the front doors of Valley businesses, including Lockheed, Anheuser-Busch in Van Nuys and Rockwell International’s Rocketdyne division in Canoga Park.

A recent Thursday evening class at Lockheed drew about a dozen employees, who said they had come there for somewhat predictable reasons. Gary Barsh, a 37-year-old mill operator, said matter-of-factly that he was interested in “knowing how to work robots, in case they ever replace me.”

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‘It’s Intimidating’

That opinion was shared by Wolfgang Ludeking, who lives in Simi Valley and has worked at the plant for 24 years.

“It’s intimidating, sure, but it’s better than being laid off,” he said. “I’m 45 now, and I don’t want to be left out when I turn 50.”

Since 1983, about 1,000 employees at industries throughout Los Angeles County have walked right outside their work places into “school” to learn about computers in the hope of keeping pace with technological changes that might otherwise cost them their jobs.

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Officially, the classes are overseen by the district and funded by the state’s 2 1/2-year-old Employment Training Panel. They are a prized example of a statewide effort to help experienced blue- and white-collar workers adjust to increasingly computerized machinery.

For the most part, the traveling classrooms are the brainchild of Lavoie, a 39-year-old ex-machinist who was recently named “Innovator of the Year” by the League for Innovation, a national organization of computer educators at community colleges.

Advantage of Trailers

Essentially, the innovations that won the award consist simply of using reinforced trailers filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of computer equipment, and various computerized “training” tools. By Lavoie’s account, the trailers make it easy for companies to provide inexpensive training while their employees earn college credits.

Since 1983, Lavoie has overseen construction of five of these trailers. Four are based at Valley College and a fifth at Mission College in Mission Hills.

The trailers, towed to interested businesses for 10- to 12-week visits, provide a base for instruction in computerized drafting, computerized office skills and “computer-assisted” manufacturing methods. The waiting list is 18 months long.

In the parking lot near the Lockheed employment office, about 20 workers from the company’s manufacturing division have lately been learning the intricacies of something called the “Bridgeport Series I CNC Lathe,” which has gradually been replacing various machines used to shape airplane parts.

Behind a storehouse at Weber Aircraft in Burbank, another of the trailers is filled with 25 IBM office computers, which are used to teach office automation skills. A third, planted at Garrett Air Research facility in Torrance, offers classes in computer-aided drafting.

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