With skilled labor in demand, York Exponential builds its own workforce

The York-based robotics company is training its own set of middle-class workers who can install and service robots through its licensed adult training program.

Story paid for by: York Exponential
Written by: Anthony Machcinski
York Exponential CEO John McElligott discusses the area’s heritage of manufacturing and how York has always been at its best when it’s man and machine working together. (Video by Caleb Robertson for Our York Media)

Not even a year ago, Daniel Heckert knew next to nothing about the robotics industry.

Robots he saw in the movies served as his only reference. He thought real-life robots were nearly impossible to build, and he figured it took people a lot smarter than him to actually work with them.

Now, though, after just 12 weeks of training, the 30-year-old York man is making about $43,000 a year working as an entry-level robot technician at York Exponential, a York-based robotics-solutions company.

Soon, students in York Exponential’s licensed adult training program will study at a brand-new facility: The Fortress in York’s WeCo district.

On the outside, The Fortress, which once housed the former Western National Bank, may seem forgotten with its bricked-up, front-facing façade. Inside, though, York Exponential CEO John McElligott is building an important phase in The York Plan 2.0, and he relishes the moments when people see or hear his plan in action.

“They come up and say, ‘I can’t believe this is going on in York,’” John says. “It makes me excited when people’s eyes are open. York is on the upswing. Now is our time to double down.”

Daniel Heckert poses outside of The Fortress, where students like him will go through a licensed adult training program to become robot technicians. (Photo by Caleb Robertson for Our York Media)

Eliminating the bottleneck

When Daniel graduated from high school, people often told him “college is the obvious choice” after school. Rather than going into debt with a major he may not like, he decided he’d take his chances on the real world.

When he found York Exponential years later, it finally panned out.

“York Ex is the first thing that had everything I was looking for,” Daniel says, “but also was a door that was open to me without a bachelor’s degree.”

After he was hired, Daniel went through the company’s training at its headquarters on Roosevelt Avenue in York, where he learned everything from fabrication and welding to basic computer programming and aspects of robotic repair.

It’s not only to educate but to expose the community to this technology. It’s a critical piece that can only be accomplished in a physical space.

quotecircle
John McElligott CEO of York Exponential

Once he graduated, he became the company’s first entry-level robot technician.

It’s people like Daniel, and the many others from the York and York County community who are good with their hands and builders in their hearts, that York Exponential is hoping to recruit into its adult education program.

There’s a bottleneck in getting robotics more involved in the real world, John says. It isn’t an education or a technological problem but rather finding a workforce to install and repair the technology.

In response, York Exponential is building the middle-class – a set of workers like Daniel who can install and service the robots without a need for higher education.

“Our goal is to take anybody with no previous knowledge in robotics and, within 12 to 15 weeks, turn them into a Robot Tech 1,” John says. “A bachelor’s degree, in many cases, is overkill. Robotics have been more of a niche industry, and you have to get out of that mindset if they’re going to grow.”

Behind the scenes inside of The Fortress in York’s WeCo neighborhood, York Exponential has done plenty of work to get the future center for technological advancement up and running. (Photo by Caleb Robertson for Our York Media)

‘The rise to prominence’

Inside The Fortress, it might not seem like much is happening. The former bank has sat vacant for some time, with a huge vault serving as the only real fixture in an otherwise empty building.

Behind the scenes, though, plenty of work has been done to get the future center for technological advancement up and running.

Next year, York Exponential hopes to open the site to start training more technicians like Daniel to service the growing industry. It’s not just a place for training, either; it’s an “outreach and preparation arm” of the industry.

York Exponential CEO John McElligott stands inside the future home of The Fortress. (Photo by Caleb Robertson for Our York Media)
York Exponential CEO John McElligott stands inside the future home of The Fortress. (Photo by Caleb Robertson for Our York Media)
Rendering of The Fortress courtesy of York Exponential
Rendering of The Fortress courtesy of York Exponential
York Exponential CEO John McElligott’s vision for The Fortress will not just be a place for training, he says, but also an “outreach and preparation arm” of the industry. (Photos by Caleb Robertson for Our York Media / Renderings courtesy of York Exponential)

“It’s not only to educate but to expose the community to this technology,” John says. “It’s a critical piece that can only be accomplished in a physical space.”

Since the company began leasing the property in 2016, John has heard the word around town to “get The Fortress done” or “I don’t care what goes there, just open something there.”

He’s battled that talk with what he calls aggressive patience.

“I would rather hold off and know opening it is a necessity rather than rush it,” he says. “We’re in a good position now. We’re starting the rise to prominence.”

York Exponential CEO John McElligott sits in front of the vault of the former Western National Bank. The company began leasing the property in 2016. (Photo by Caleb Robertson for Our York Media)

‘I can’t believe this is going on in York’

These days, John is travelling the nation, speaking with everyone from large groups to government officials about The York Plan 2.0.

It wasn’t until recently he felt people truly understood his plan.

The proof lies in Daniel. He wasn’t just the company’s first robot technician; he’s the first showcase of The York Plan 2.0.

“There’s still a lot of work to do, but you have to appreciate and celebrate the success, like Daniel graduating,” John says. “If you can’t train people and get the jobs, it’s a waste.”

Daniel’s time certainly hasn’t been wasted. In two weeks on the job, he’s already seen work out in the field on installations and repair work. Better yet, he hasn’t felt overwhelmed in his surroundings. He feels like this is something that anyone, regardless of skill level or education, can be a part of.

“All you really need from the beginning is the ability to learn,” Daniel says. “Anyone could honestly learn this.”

After just 12 weeks of training through The Fortress' licensed adult training program, Daniel Heckert is making about $43,000 a year working as an entry-level robot technician at the company. (Photo by Caleb Robertson for Our York Media)

Get good news in your inbox: Subscribe and we’ll send you the latest features as well as behind-the-scenes looks of our stories and why each story we publish matters to us and the community.