PITTSBURG, Kan. — As many displaced workers continue to struggle amid the economic recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Pittsburg State University had some good news to announce for a change this week.

Earlier this month, PSU was notified that its Plastics Engineering Technology program would receive a $146,000 grant to buy new equipment to help attract students who may need retraining to find a new job after being laid off. The grant is being provided through the Kansas Department of Commerce and is funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“They put out several different types of grants and one of those grants that we went after was the higher education equipment grant,” said Greg Murray, chair of PSU’s Engineering Technology Department.

The purpose of the grant was to pay for advanced manufacturing equipment, Murray said, and it will be used to buy a new extrusion line.

“Extrusion is kind of like a Play-Doh. You remember the old Play-Doh? You put it in, pushed it through and it extruded a profile, so that’s how you make vinyl siding, vinyl windows, additive manufacturing material like 3D printing material, stuff like that,” Murray said.

“We have extrusion lines but they’re so old and antiquated that it’s not indicative of what the technology is now. So we’re trying to retrain them on the latest in what they would actually see in companies now, so that’s the biggest thing.”

The Plastics Engineering Technology faculty are working on developing curriculum for two- to five-day workshops, Murray said, “and you’ll get a certificate based on that, and say you do want an extrusion [certificate] and you do want an injection molding [certificate], we’re going to be able to stack those to make it count towards one of our plastics processing classes in our program, so it’s also going to help them if they find it interesting and want to continue on, they’re starting a path through our two-year or four-year program.”

There are very few programs similar to Pitt State’s Plastics Engineering Technology program nationwide, Murray said, and graduates of the program average $65,000 to $70,000 annual starting salary.

“There’s basically four that are like ours, where they focus on part design, tool design and processing,” he said. “Now there’s some community colleges that might have a class or two or maybe a certificate in running just injection molding, but ours, we focus on almost every different type of process there is, and we also do research here with the Kansas Polymer Research Center.”

Besides helping to retrain people who have been laid off amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the new equipment will also benefit students currently in the program, many of whom may be able to find work nearby once they graduate.

“This will affect a lot of people in our region, so we have plastics processing companies like Inteplast here in Pittsburg and Sanderson Pipe, but we also are going to be reaching out to industries in McPherson, Kansas and the Wichita area,” Murray said. “There’s a lot of extrusion companies out in that area.”

Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce President Blake Benson also attended the event Wednesday where the CARES Act grant was announced, and commented on the Plastics Engineering Program’s value to the local economy.

“This program — and this entire facility — is truly an asset to our economic development efforts,” Benson said, “and as Greg mentioned, obviously the unexpected loss of a job is a very difficult time for anyone, but it also creates a valuable opportunity for maybe somebody to go back and train in a high-demand, high-wage area like plastic engineering.”