The hills beckoned. Like many West Virginia natives working out of state, Rick Smith dreamed of one day returning home. For years he toiled in the oil and gas fields of Pennsylvania. The money was good, but the hours were long and the lengthy separations from his family seemed like eternity.
“I would get up at two or 2:30 in the morning, get ready for work, put in a long 16-hour day running equipment, fracking gas wells, doing whatever needed to be done,” he explained. “Meanwhile, my wife and daughter were back home in West Virginia.”
Separation meant missed birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and family gatherings. “I did the math, and out of 16 years my daughter has been alive, I’ve only been home five of those years. You worry that if something were to happen, it’s a nine-hour drive home to Lincoln County. I’d been looking for work closer to home for years, something that I could make a decent living doing.”
In January, Smith decided to take a risk, quit his out-of-state-job, return home and pursue his dream of becoming a machinist.
“I had been thinking about getting a machinist degree for a long time,” Smith said. “That’s what I wanted to do when I got out of high school but I just never did it. Sometime life gets in the way and you don’t act on your dreams.”
Smith enrolled in the Machinist Technology/CNC Program at the Marshall Advanced Manufacturing Center (formerly RCBI) offered in partnership with Mountwest Community & Technical College. “I wanted to find a school that was close where I didn’t have to be gone from home and that I could still find a part-time job while going to school.”
Within days, he was producing metal parts on lathes and mills under the tutelage of the center’s experienced instructors. “I love working with my hands,” he said. “I don’t want to be sitting around at work. I like to be up running the machines. That gives me enjoyment.”
Machinist Instructor Travis Gibson said Smith is among the best of the best students. “Rick is a quick learner and shows a great interest in his work. He strives for perfection and takes it seriously. He shows great problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, which are essential in machining.”
“I take pride in what I do. I try to make them (the instructors) proud,” Smith said.
His dedication to the craft already is paying off. Just weeks into his machinist training, Smith landed a part–time manufacturing job at Wooten’s Machine Shop in Huntington.
That’s not uncommon. With a pressing demand for machinists in the region, most of the center’s students secure employment while still students. The flex training programs allow them to attend machinist classes three days a week, work part-time and still finish the program in as little as 18 months – which is Smith’s goal.
“I want to get my degree and be a full-time machinist,” said the 42 year old.
When Smith isn’t training or working as a machinist – an occupation in which precision is paramount – he’s often found practicing his favorite hobby, competitive shooting, in which precision is everything.
“I shoot Benchrest at 600 and 1,000 yards and it’s all about precision and accuracy, just like with machining. And there are tolerances in reloading just as there are tolerances in machining. They both go hand in hand.”
Last year, Smith won Shooter of the Year at 600 yards in the Global Benchrest Association competition, which he described as the minor league of competitive shooting. Overall, he finished 41st in the nation from that distance.
For the foreseeable future, Smith plans to continue honing his marksmanship as he fulfills his dream of becoming a machinist, just like his late friend. “One of my good buddies passed away this year,” Smith said. “He was a machinist for 40 years, a great mentor and just a good guy. I learned a lot from him. I know he would be tickled pink knowing that I’m enrolled in the machinist program here at [the Marshall Advanced Manufacturing Center].”
Most of all, Smith is doing it for his daughter. “She’s one of the biggest reasons I decide to come here (to the center), to show her to never give up,” he said. “If it’s what you want to do, you have to go for it.”
March 29, 2023