More entrepreneurs = more living-wage jobs
Local business helps Clark students find meaningful work
By Lily Raff McCaulou
For the first decade or so of his career, Mark Zimmerman stuck to his own rule: never stay in a job for longer than two years.
After graduating from Oregon State University, he went to work for a large accounting firm, where he specialized in the manufacturing industry. He then switched to various manufacturing companies and with each new job, he learned as much as he could to snag a promotion—or find a new opportunity elsewhere.
“I had an ‘up-or-out’ philosophy,” he said. “I wanted to learn and contribute to the business but I wasn’t willing to let myself get bored.”
He eventually did settle in with a company, and it was during that time that he forged a connection with Clark College.
In 2001, Zimmerman was approached by the new owners of a company called Simplex Aerospace. They had recently purchased a small, family-owned business and were looking to help it grow and diversify. Simplex makes aviation mission equipment—sprayers for crop dusters or for fighting wildfires, for example—and contraptions to service remote wind turbines and power lines. It was founded 75 years ago by a self-described “tinkerer.” The culture of experimentation and camaraderie matched Zimmerman’s own entrepreneurial spirit. When Simplex was developing an accessory for dump trucks, Zimmerman said, a longtime employee drove her pickup truck to work and then watched as coworkers outfitted it with pneumatics to test their new device.
Zimmerman said he was also drawn to Simplex’s deep commitment to safety. In a previous job, working for a wood products manufacturer, Zimmerman lost a coworker who died on the job; he worked closely with his coworker’s family to help them claim their survivor benefits. It was a heartbreaking experience that Zimmerman vowed never to repeat.
As the years ticked by, something strange happened to Zimmerman: he stayed put. Simplex grew from 15 employees to nearly 60. It developed new products and expanded its business overseas. Zimmerman got involved in product development, and he holds patents on products such as the SkyCannon, which allows small aircraft to shoot water horizontally into high-rise buildings to extinguish fires that can’t be reached from the ground.
As his career with Simplex flourished, he began hosting interns at the company, eager to show Clark students what can happen when they find meaningful work that they love. He volunteered with Clark’s Entrepreneurial and Aeronautical clubs. He encouraged his wife to get involved with the college, too.
“As businesspeople,” Zimmerman said, “we have to partner with Clark.”
At first, someone from the college contacted Zimmerman and asked if Simplex would be interested in having interns from the school’s drafting department help draw up technical designs.
“They said, ‘we just want them to get some work experience, you don’t have to pay them,’” Zimmerman recalled. Zimmerman agreed to the interns, on one condition: he was going to pay a fair hourly wage—about $12 an hour—to anyone who interned at Simplex. The decision was rooted in a firm belief.
“You don’t work for free,” he said.
It soon dawned on Zimmerman that he could do more for the college—and get more in return—than host interns. One of his suppliers mentioned having difficulty finding skilled machinists in the area. Zimmerman reached out to a handful of community colleges in and around Portland that taught machining.
“Clark was the only one I heard back from,” he said.
Zimmerman invited his colleague to join him on a tour of Clark, where the person noticed that Clark’s machining program didn’t train students on quoting or estimating the cost of a job.
“He said, ‘you need to add quoting to the curriculum—and I’ll help teach it,’” Zimmerman recalled.
For Zimmerman, that moment highlighted what can happen when local businesspeople partner with Clark. Experts in their industries can ensure that Clark students receive a comprehensive and relevant education so they’re qualified to work after graduation. Businesses then provide jobs for these graduates. And when local businesses find the well-trained employees they need right here at Clark, instead of having to move people in from other areas, the region’s economy gets a boost.
Zimmerman was introduced to Nathan Webster, director of the club Clark Entrepreneurs, who inspired Zimmerman to do more for the college. He invited Zimmerman to participate in the club, as well as a second club, Aerospace
Webster owns a marketing firm called N&W Associates, where he, too, has hosted Clark interns. Webster said more and more industries are moving away from unpaid internships. Particularly for a community college like Clark, paid internships offer equity, as many students can’t afford to work without pay according to Webster.
“And a lot of Clark students already have skills,” he said. “Many of them have been displaced from other jobs and they’re training for new careers but they already have work experience.”
Webster said that partnerships with local businesses are a win-win for the college and for the local economy. He pointed to Clark’s Nursing and Dental Hygiene programs as model departments that already enjoy close connections with local employers. Hospitals and dentists in the area help shape current students’ educations and then stand ready to hire them upon graduation.
There is a similar opportunity, he said, to forge connections with a variety of other private businesses to help develop a diverse workforce. And it all comes at an opportune moment, according to Webster, as downtown Portland—which historically outshined surrounding communities like Vancouver—struggles with a reputation for rampant homelessness and disruptive protests.
“This is possibly the first time Vancouver has had to… stop hiding in the shadows of Portland and stand on its own merit,” Webster said. “We need to encourage, promote and provide the type of culture that is going to create entrepreneurs, which is going to create businesses which is going to create living-wage jobs. It’s time for the college to be a part of helping the economy grow instead of just maintaining it.”
Mark Zimmerman shared his Clark experiences over dinner. His wife, Sharon Zimmerman, had her own personal experience with community college. She went to a four-year university but then she and Mark got married and had children. Ten years later, when Sharon Zimmerman decided to go back to school, she enrolled in a community college close to home.
“The education that I got there was wonderful, just a great foundation,” she said. “And I liked that the other students were so serious about it.” Many were older, like her. Even the students who had recently finished high school were working part time and spending their own money on tuition, so they took their studies seriously.
After an introduction from Mark, Sharon Zimmerman connected with the college and began meeting with groups of students. Her professional background is in municipal engineering, which means she often works on projects that people don’t even realize require engineers—city parks, roads, sewer systems. When she spoke to Clark students, she made sure they knew of the broad spectrum of engineering careers.
“My interest is in trying to inform and educate people about what the engineering profession is and how critical it is to our economy, our transportation, our public health,” she said. “There is so much diversity in engineering.”
Trisha Haakonstad, a career adviser at Clark, said internships are just one example of what she calls “work-based learning.” The college has an online job board, called Penguin Jobs, where students can browse opportunities. And the career services office can help students find opportunities beyond those listings, too.
“There’s so much possibility… I tell students, ‘we can try to make this look like whatever you want. It might require some work, you might have to research organizations and get your materials together.’ But that’s a valuable experience in and of itself,” Haakonstad said.
She added that community members like Sharon Zimmerman have a lot to offer Clark students by meeting with them and talking about their careers. In fact, Haakonstad said that finding individuals like Sharon Zimmerman who will sit down and meet with a curious student can be more difficult than finding specific internships or companies.
“It could be a job shadow or an informational interview, it doesn’t always have to be a formal internship,” she said.
Inspired to give
When Mark Zimmerman first connected with Clark College, he decided he wasn’t going to give a donation.
“What I would rather do is give an opportunity to students, give them a leg up,” he said.
But the Zimmermans eventually decided to give money to the college, too, as they heard about other ways to support students.
“We heard about some of the struggles that some students have today, like deciding between eating and going to school,” Sharon Zimmerman said. “That just floored me.”
She added that she felt compelled to donate money because she was impressed by specific college initiatives, such as the Penguin Pantry, which was founded to alleviate students’ food insecurity. That’s another thing Sharon Zimmerman said she gains from her connection to Clark College: inspiration. The students inspire her with their hard work and determination. And the college inspires her with its creative solutions.
Sharon Zimmerman is still finding new ways to give to the college. She was recently elected president of the Washington Society of Professional Engineers. She said the organization offers a $5,000 annual scholarship specifically for community college students transferring to a four-year university to finish their engineering training.
“It’s something that we don’t always get a lot of applicants for,” she said, “and I’d really like to have the Clark College students take advantage of that.”
She’s helping to spread word throughout the college about this opportunity.
“There are very impressive students at Clark College that deserve it,” she said.
Mark Zimmerman is finding new ways to connect with Clark, too. Last year, Simplex sold again and while Zimmerman still does some consulting for the company, he puts most of his energy into his own startup, Centaur UAS. The company is designing multi-mission aircraft—helicopters that are big enough to do something like deliver COVID vaccines or help with construction that can be operated remotely, as drones. As Zimmerman launches this next venture, he wants to reboot his internship program with Clark.
“I want to do it again but I want to do it more holistically,” he said. “As a business, I need trained people that are thinking about the future. They need skills to do what they need to today but their mindset needs to be, ‘What’s next?’”
He is excited to see Clark’s new campus at Boschma Farms in Ridgefield, Wash., which could lead to high-tech job growth.
“There are sensors on everything now, and we need people who can design, build and maintain all of these electronics,” he said. “In my opinion, we are going through another industrial revolution right now. All of these sensors, these sophisticated electronics, they mean I can make my products safer, more reliable; I can do more things. I can make society better and save lives.”
Mark Zimmerman has seen firsthand how businesses can benefit from working with Clark. Energized by his new business venture, he looks forward to bringing in Clark students and getting them excited about their own futures—whether they go on to work for Centaur UAS or elsewhere.
“You’ve got to be constantly changing and adapting to the future or you’re out of business, you just don’t know it yet,” he said. “It’s a process of continuous improvement.”
Lily Raff McCaulou is a journalist whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and Rolling Stone. She lives in Bend, Ore. Visit her online at www.lilyrm.com.