Michael Grijalva says he’s always been mechanically inclined, taking things apart as a kid and fixing cars as he got older.

But he wasn’t sure of a career as he moved toward graduation from Desert View High School last year.

Now, after completing an internship last summer at Sargent Aerospace and Defense in Marana, Grijalva, 19, is laying the foundation for a career by working part time as a mill operator at Sargent while taking advanced machining courses at Pima Community College.

“The internship helps you see if it’s what you want to do. … It lets you get your feet wet,” Grijalva said. “It’s well worth it — it’s a great opportunity.”

Creating more great opportunities is the aim of Southern Arizona Manufacturing Partners (SAMP), a group of local manufacturers looking to expand an internship program seen as key to filling the pipeline for machinists and other manufacturing workers.

Demand for machinists is expected to grow by 9 percent through 2022 — about the same as the average for all occupations — with operators of computer-controlled machines in the highest demand, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Experienced machinists can make more than $20 an hour, with a median pay of $19.67 in 2012, according to the BLS.

Formed in mid-2012 as the Machining Industry Sector Engagement Group to address a shortage of entry-level machinists, SAMP has grown from a dozen participating companies to 26 industry members now, ranging from small machine shops to Sargent and Raytheon Missile Systems, the area’s biggest private employer.

The SAMP program offers eight-week internships in which students are paid $8.50 per hour and get tuition help to take corresponding machining classes at Pima.

Other non-industry partners of the group include Pima County One-Stop Career Centers, which seeded an initial internship program and funds intern tuitions; PCC; Tucson Magnet High School and Desert View; and the Pima County Joint Technical Education District, which supports career and technical education in local schools.

All 12 interns from last summer’s program completed their stints — except for one who decided to join the military. Of the rest, 10 landed continuing internships with their host companies, and the remaining student quit school but got a job at a SAMP-member machine shop, said Jim Mize, manager of business services for Pima County One-Stop and a SAMP leader.

The manufacturers group plans to expand and refine the program this summer.

So far, the program has interest from about 25 students at the two participating schools with the required machining facilities, Tucson High and Desert View.

“We’re going to have more kids this year, which means we have to develop more companies and maintain the companies we’ve got,” Mize said at a SAMP meeting last week.

The group also has worked with PCC to create dual-enrollment credits for high school students and refine its machining curriculum to meet industry needs. The group also has added a second-level internship track and is working with PCC and the high schools to offer industry certification for machining students.

While last year’s program essentially took all applicants, the heightened interest and some rough spots in the initial program have prompted SAMP to refine its interviewing process, said Don Theriault, president of Tucson-based Industrial Tool, Die and Engineering and a SAMP leader.

As they move to expand the internship program, SAMP members hope to provide more oversight and mentoring, after some students had a rough time moving from high school life to a college-and-work schedule.

“It’s not just selecting the students. This time we’re looking at meeting with students to make sure they understand the difference between going to high school and going to Pima,” Mize said. “That’s a whole new world to them — college and working and still doing what they need to do.”

SAMP members have worked with Pima to tweak the internship curriculum, stretching two tiers of semester units over four tiers, moving a technical math class to a later tier and adding a business ethics class to teach such “soft skills” as punctuality.

“Some of them had jobs, but they weren’t on such a rigid schedule as we expect,” Theriault said.

The group also plans to set up more regular monitoring and mentoring of interns, including regular reports of class attendance and progress.

SAMP member Jeremy Schalk, vice president of Hi-Tech Machining and Engineering in Tucson, said he found out too late that one of his company’s interns was struggling with certain skills in class.

“I want to know they are struggling and try to get them over the hurdle,” Schalk said.

Meanwhile, SAMP has worked with the high schools and Pima to establish dual credits for some machining courses. Students at Desert View are eligible for dual PCC credits for one entry-level machining course and one computer-aided design  course.

Tucson High is working to finalize dual-enrollment credits with PCC for two machining courses, instructor Ray Wiggins said.

The schools also are working to offer certifications under National Institute of Metalworking Skills, so students can take tests locally.

SAMP is trying to get the word out to entice more companies to offer internships, while promoting machining careers in shop tours, including one held in early February.

A local shop tour last year persuaded Desert View student Jesus Gil to sign up for an internship at Industrial Tool, Die and Engineering after graduating in May.

Gil, 19, now works full time at Industrial Tool while taking classes at Pima. While he still has a dream to become a SWAT police officer, he finds his current job operating a computer numerical control  mill at Industrial Tool fascinating and challenging.

Though he hasn’t yet gotten into CNC machine programming, operating the high-tech automated mill takes more than just pressing a button, Gil noted.

“You never know when a tool might break, or if you didn’t load a part right,” he said. “You’ve always got to pay attention to what you’re doing and not get distracted. … Once you start running it, you hope everything goes right.”

Mize said he welcomes new SAMP member employers, noting that not all of the new member companies have committed to hosting interns.

The group will continue to recruit new members, spreading the word at events such as the Made in Arizona Block Party, set for March 6 at Tucson Embedded Systems.

“Hopefully, this will get the attention of some other people,” Theriault said.

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.