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ORNL Laboratory Technology Program provides opportunities for underemployed workers

Lab Tech participant says bad times do not last forever

Rick Chambers

After Rick Chambers unexpectedly found himself jobless after 35 years of employment, he completed a free manufacturing training program in the Advanced Materials Training and Education Center at Roane State Community College. There, he gained the skills needed to succeed in the Laboratory Technology Program at the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he is now. Part of Chambers’ responsibilities includes helping control the carbon fiber manufacturing line.

As an undergraduate majoring in pre-pharmacy at Tennessee Tech University, Richard “Rick” Chambers decided to take a little break from school and work for a year to pay off student loans. That hiatus lasted decades.

“About 35 years flew by before I knew it,” said Chambers. During these years, he held positions as a lab technician, coal plant supervisor, and manager at flooring companies.

“Then I found myself unemployed for the first time in my life at age 55,” he said. “Being an older employee added to the challenge of finding a job.”

In 2010, after more than 18 months unemployed, Chambers turned to Roane State Community College’s Advanced Materials Training and Education Center (AMTEC) for help. He completed a no-cost, high-tech training program at AMTEC intended for underemployed candidates like him to gain competitive skills, such as lean manufacturing and machining.

At a Roane State job fair, Chambers presented himself to recruiters from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) Laboratory Technology Program. The LabTech program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education, managed by ORAU. The LabTech program, located at ORNL’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility, prepares qualified undergraduate students and recent associate and baccalaureate graduates for careers in the carbon fiber industry at the facility.

When the program’s recruiters saw Chambers’ 30-plus years of professional laboratory experience in addition to his acquired skills at AMTEC, they thought he was well-suited to become a part of the growing carbon fiber technology workforce.

“We are extremely fortunate to have found Rick; he is a very good technician with a great attitude,” said Connie Jackson, operations manager of the facility and Chambers’ mentor. “He reminds us that it is never too late to re-train for a new career. Seasoned workers bring a valuable dimension and level of professional maturity to the workforce and should always be considered for their abilities.”

Chambers said his skills, knowledge and past experiences transferred well to the position he now holds as a lab technician.

“My team has been tasked with the challenge of developing and demonstrating low-cost carbon fiber technology and producing the supply needed for large-scale material and process evaluations in composite materials applications,” he said.

Carbon fiber has potential uses in aerospace, aviation, civil engineering, military and other industries because of its strength, low weight, and high chemical resistance, temperature tolerance, and stiffness, as well as its low thermal expansion.

“For example, when we develop low-cost carbon fiber that can be used in the automotive industry, vehicles can be made lighter, use less gas and make America less dependent on foreign oil,” explained Chambers. “The technology also could have a snowball effect on new product development.”

In 2009, ORNL received a grant to build the facility designed to produce up to 25 metric tons a year of carbon fiber. After numerous months of preparation, the facility transitioned into full-swing operation in January 2013.

“I am a member of a team responsible for controlling optimal line conditions for manufacturing,” Chambers said. “This includes controlling oven and furnace temperatures, tension, dwell times and surface treatment.”

Chambers craved a new career that was both challenging and rewarding. Now, after many months in the carbon fiber industry, he said he found it.

“I feel good about what I’m doing, and I sing every day driving to and from the lab,” he said.

Aside from the program, Chambers enjoys hiking, traveling, home-improvement projects and spending time with his family. He is dedicated to being someone his friends and family are proud to know, and he knows that means never giving up—no matter what happens.

“Neither good times nor bad times last forever,” he said. “My motto is to appreciate the good times and persevere through the bad times. If you keep traveling in the right direction, you will always reach your goal.”

Participant Profile

Jim Kron

Lab Tech program gives AMTEC participant a second chance at success

After a nearly fatal car accident rendered Jim Kron jobless, he turned to Roane State Community College’s Advanced Materials Training and Education Center where he gained skills he now employs at the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility at ORNL.

Did you know?

According to a study conducted by Lucintel for the American Composites Manufacturers Association, worldwide demand for carbon fiber by 2017 could increase by about three times the existing annual demand.

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