The automated way
Veteran of industrial engineering goes back to college after job goes to Mexico
By Shelby Sebens
Joe Cristman’s binder is covered with a cartoon of Albert Einstein wearing a shirt that reads “Mechanerds.” The binder is a symbol of Cristman’s, 59, devotion to learning technology, and in particular, a funny-sounding field called mechatronics
A veteran of industrial engineering for 34 years, Cristman started college in 2013 after his job moved to Mexico. He attends Clark College at Columbia Tech Center in the Mechatronics Technology program and is pursuing a long-held dream: to be a teacher.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Cristman saw an opportunity to serve as a mentor to fellow students while he adjusted to a new life of coursework and exams. He launched a new club last September and dubbed it Mechanerds. The club creates a sense of camaraderie among Mechatronics students, provides opportunities to share information and taps into each other for brainstorming.
“This club gives me the opportunity to share my experience and knowledge from several decades of working in the industry,” he said, adding, “You kind of build this brotherhood, sisterhood.”
Cristman, who started his career as an electrician in 1980, grabbed at the chance for a two-year federal training scholarship when his job moved south. The United States Federal Government’s Trade Act Agreement through the North American Free Trade Agreement gave him an opportunity to pursue the bachelor’s degree that had alluded him during his career.
The education that Cristman is receiving is one example of how Clark is working to meet the needs of an industry that is continuously shifting to keep pace with the rapid change of technology.
“Mechatronics really represents a lot of the changes in the manufacturing industry in the last 20 years.”
~ Michelle Giovannozzi, Clark College’s Economic & Community Development
Mechatronics is automated manufacturing, everything from motor control to electronics. The program teaches the fundamentals, from how to build circuits to how components work. But more importantly, according to Mechatronics department head and instructor Chris Lewis, is teaching students what to do when the machines fail.
“We emphasize trouble shooting and problem solving through repetitive exercises as part of their lab experiments,” he said.
Students—individually and in teams—learn critical thinking through these exercises and come to recognize patterns in operation, symptoms of irregular operation and more. The goal is to teach students how to quickly and successfully troubleshoot malfunctioning equipment a manufacturing business.
“The skills students learn emphasize self-reliance,” Lewis said. “After successful troubleshooting begins, students build confidence that are re-enforced in the lab exercises,” Lewis said. “The more they troubleshoot, the faster they get.”
About two years ago industry officials started requesting specific training from the college. As a result, Michelle Giovannozzi, director of corporate and community partnerships for Clark College’s Economic & Community Development, formed a group of about 15 regional employers to brainstorm how to fill their demands with skilled workers.
Many employers are facing a mass retirement of baby boomers in the next three to five years and even more over the next decade, according to Giovannozzi. That’s why she is convinced now is the time to train future workers in current technology in real-work situations.
“There’s not a large pool of people to backfill. And it’s not just one company. It’s any company that’s doing advanced manufacturing,” she said. “There is a high demand in this area.”
Lewis, who is celebrating 16 years of teaching at Clark, noted several years ago that there was a gap between what industries required and students getting jobs.
“I saw students graduating who weren’t getting the jobs that were commensurate with the education they were receiving,” he said.
Lewis approached industry leaders, talking to truck and chip manufacturers to semiconductor professionals.
“It’s important that the program has feedback from industry, because a community college is here to serve the needs of our community. As our region changes, then our college needs to keep pace as well,” he said.
After receiving feedback, Lewis rewrote the curriculum to match the needs of the businesses. Like the start-and-stop of a basic motor control circuit that technicians need to know. Moreover, basic safety courses and standard communication software was also added to the syllabus.
“Last year, the Mechatronics program graduated 13 students and by the end of the summer they all had jobs in the industry,” Lewis said.
The 2014 class was the third to graduate in the 5-year-old program. Students earn an associate degree through the two-year program, which requires 34 courses, or opt for a one-year certificate which represents a collection of skills to satisfy an entry-level job.
Additional enhancements to the program in the last few years as a result of industry involvement include a new Industrial Maintenance Technician (IMT) associate degree and professional job training. IMT combines a selection of Clark’s existing Mechatronics, Machining and Welding courses to train students on preventive maintenance and repairs for manufacturers and other mechanical industries.
Furthermore, businesses can send their current employees to the college for hands-on training.
“Many courses that employees take lead to job promotions or they can go on to obtain the one-year certificate or an associate degree,” Lewis said.
The college continually seeks input from employers on how to best prepare students for the job market. “This ongoing two-way conversation helps shape the program and offers real-time input on the curriculum, which is invaluable,” Giovannozzi said.
College officials and instructors are not the only ones reaching out to companies. Cristman—through his Mechanerds club—sought input from Boeing about a need for workers who are skilled in the use of 3D printers. The 30-member club purchased a 3D printer and Cristman intends to train students on how learn the programming, create products, repair and troubleshoot the printers.
Collaboration between industry, students like Cristman and faculty helps keep the Mechatronics program current and in demand. And a little Einstein brand awareness from time to time doesn’t hurt the program’s image either.
Shelby Sebens is a freelance journalist in Portland, Ore. She writes for Reuters and various local media outlets. In her decade as a reporter, she has covered state and local government, hurricanes and breaking news. She also teaches digital journalism at Clark College and has a master’s in public affairs reporting.