OAKWOOD - In 2009, Spencer Sorgen started taking courses to earn a BA in business. After a couple of semesters, however, he wasn't comfortable with where that path might take him. "I wanted to know that I'd finish school with skills employers want," said Sorgen.
For a growing number of students, the traditional model of completing degrees without any idea of what kind of career they'll pursue or how to apply theories learned isn't a comfortable place to be, especially with an uncertain economy and such a significant growth of jobs that require specialized skill sets.
That's when Sorgen looked into the Drafting Technology program at Lanier Technical College (LTC) led by Darrell Fletcher.
"When I walked into Mr. Fletcher's classroom I saw 10 jobs on the board and how the skills they taught in class would prepare me for them. That's when I knew I was on the right track." What Sorgen and three of his classmates didn't know is that track would lead to opportunities just 10 miles from the school at Interstate Ridge Business Park in Gainesville.
ENGINEERED IN GROWTH
An industry shift to outsource engineering functions had left Chad Garrish with a growing client list for his two companies - Edge Innovative Solutions, a product design firm and EpiGrid, a cloud-hosted engineering data management solution provider.
"New product development is all about innovation and speed. Finding the right talent is crucial to designing an in-demand product and manufacturing it before the competition," said Garrish.
Along with his two lead engineers, David Fuller and Lambros Samouris, Garrish - a product designer himself - has successfully developed and patented products in diverse industries from medical device to satellite communications. Experience has taught him the importance of fostering new talent to promote growth. "Investing in students is forward thinking; it's the long-term effect," said Garrish.
About the time Garrish moved from a single room office space to a 5,000 square-foot facility, he contacted Darrell Fletcher at Lanier Tech to find candidates for several internships he was developing. Fletcher, who has been teaching the drafting program for more than 20 years, was thrilled about the opportunity.
"Industry internships are very beneficial to students," said Fletcher. "I teach the fundamentals and the basics of the tools like AutoCAD and SolidWorks, but an internship allows them to put their training to use. By using it daily, they can progress at a higher rate."
DEVELOPING A TEAM
It was in the middle of that first conversation that Garrish found his first candidate. Andy Gilmore worked as an electrician for nearly 20 years until a failing economy prompted his layoff.
"I searched and searched for work, but a lack of education was holding me back," said Gilmore. "That's when I decided to enter the drafting degree program." When he overheard the types of projects Garrish and his team were working on Gilmore jumped at the opportunity.
"I was really excited because Chad was designing tools for electricians - the same tools I used for years on the job site. I told him I'd take out the trash if he'd just let me come and learn."
"I knew Andy would be a good fit," said Fletcher. "He has a drive. He wants to be perfect."
With the help of Gilmore's insight about his fellow students, Garrish also brought on Oun Chau and Victor Roman, and several weeks later added Spencer Sorgen.
From the very beginning, Garrish has thrown the students into the thick of learning SolidWorks and product development basics.
"We can teach these students to use SolidWorks, but there's a bridge to be built in product development," said Garrish. "Sure you have to learn to do drawings, but you also have to learn to design and how to actually make the product and do procurement. These guys are learning turn-key design by virtue of watching these products come together."
Each of the interns will admit that it's been a challenging learning environment. "They throw a slew of stuff as us all the time," said Chau. "I have a notebook with a long list of tasks that aren't necessarily related to each other. I'm really learning to manage my time."
This is true for all the interns, but especially for Chau, who in addition to serving as an intern designer at Edge Innovative is applying his IT background to support operations at EpiGrid.
The senior design team at Edge Innovative has been impressed with the work and initiative coming from the interns.
"They're all eager to learn and do the next task," said Senior Electromechanical Engineer, Lambros Samouris. "You can't always hold someone's hand the whole way through. We give them a little guidance, let them try it and they learn from their mistakes."
The four have learned from their mistakes together.
"That's the biggest focus on what we're doing," said Gilmore. "We learn together-here and in class. We're a team. We're the A-Team."
While the challenges have been plentiful, so have the rewards. At 19, the youngest intern Victor Roman commented, "being here has taught me the skills you need to perform in a working environment and it's also let me bring something to life that didn't exist before."
With decades of work experience already under his belt, Gilmore has a different take. "Edge Innovative has opened a huge window for me," said Gilmore. "I've acquired skills that no entry level position could give me and that's huge since I'm coming into a competitive market with younger folks. Plus, I've had the opportunity to build stuff with my head instead of my hands for the first time."
THE RISE OF INDUSTRY-INSPIRED CURRICULUM
It's not just the students who have seen significant changes as the result of these relationships. "These guys are some of the best students I've had," said Fletcher. "They want to learn and increase their knowledge and skills, and I've had to adjust the curriculum to continue to challenge them in class."
Fletcher has realized the importance of SolidWorks in the industry and has begun focusing on the software more. They've also begun tackling more problem-oriented tasks instead of just learning to apply simple tools. "It's my job to challenge them so they don't step backwards in the training," said Fletcher.
The interns realize how far they've progressed with the on-the-job training. "I really feel like I'm on an accelerated track skill-wise," said Chau. "Chad has also taught me a lot about CAD data admin which has really given me an advantage."
3D modeling has been just a small part of that training. "In product development there's an industry-centric approach and a skill-centric approach. I want these guys to have the skills to span industries," said Garrish. That has meant attending plastics seminars, learning the basics of product data management and other various tools to get the whole picture.
Of course each student has been challenged in different ways based on their strengths. "Each guy has different skill sets," said Garrish. "It's my role to understand what those are and put them in the right place."
For Gilmore, that understanding has actually landed him a job as a Mechanical Designer at Edge Innovative where he's designing a product to solve an industry problem that he himself faced on the job site.
THE BUSINESS OF LEARNING
A lot of engineering firms want to bill top hours on high level guys. For Garrish, he's more vested in education. He admits that with this approach there is a curve on the profitability side, but says "I don't undercut them because they're interns. I've created an environment where I ask a lot and I give a lot, but I typically get a lot in return. These guys are a team we're building."
And the students are excited to be on this type of team.
"Most graduates will go into product sustainment and never even see the new product development process-especially at this level. We're taking a first generation product and bringing it to market in eight months. That's unheard of. And they're a part of it."
To learn more about Garrish's companies and stay up to date with what they're doing, visit www.edge-innovative.com and www.EpiGrid.com. Learn more about the Drafting Technology program at Lanier Technical College at www.laniertech.edu.