After traveling the world with the Army, Trey Brown never thought he’d end up back home, attending Lorain County Community College. Now, he is carving out a new career path as he transitions from military service to microelectronics.
Brown grew up in Wellington, and after high school, joined the Military Police Corps, the law enforcement branch of the U.S. Army.
A few years into his service, Brown was deployed to Africa to provide security during the Ebola virus epidemic. He served there five months, then returned to the States for a month of quarantine.
That’s when, after three years in the Army, his career plans came to a screeching halt. Brown learned he had chronic compartment syndrome, a nerve and muscle condition that causes pain and swelling in his legs, and was medically discharged from the Army.
“I was at a standstill,” Brown says. “I was planning on a military career and that was taken away, so I had to figure out another plan.”
He began attending LCCC through its University Partnership with Ashland University. He wanted to become a teacher, but a year of coaching football changed his mind.
“I decided that kids were not the field I wanted to go into,” he says. “That’s when I saw the MEMS program online. I like knowing how things are built and how they work internally, and that caught my eye.”
LCCC’s mechatronics program prepares students to work with MicroElectroMechanical Systems (MEMS) by offering hands-on training with emerging technologies used to manufacture printed circuit boards (PCB), sensors and other components for electronic devices.
Seeing huge growth potential in an industry that is expected to reach $26.8 billion by 2022, Brown enrolled in the MEMS program last year. And while he’s still five classes away from earning his degree, he’s already received an offer to start working in the industry.
Hands-on experience in an exciting new industry
From day one of his MEMS classes, Brown began gaining experience that will translate directly into the field.
“The first week of the intro class, you’re in the lab working with the equipment,” Brown says. “You get hands-on experience right away.”
Brown is learning skills essential to PCB design and assembly, semiconductor fabrication and micro-electronic packaging. And students earn internationally recognized IPC J-STD-001 soldering certificates while learning to solder electronic components to PCBs.
Even learning the gowning protocol to enter LCCC’s Center for Microelectronic Sensor Fabrication and Hybrid Board Assembly — a 2,000-square-foot Class 10,000 cleanroom — is a professional skill that students can add to their resumes. The entire MEMS curriculum is specifically structured to teach the skills that employers have told LCCC — the first community college in Ohio authorized to deliver an applied bachelor’s degree — they need.
“We tailor our curriculum to bridge the gap between industry and education because we saw a need in the area,” says Johnny Vanderford, assistant professor of microelectronics and MEMS. “Local companies need talent, and students need valuable degrees that will get them jobs, so we connect them with the MEMS degree.”
LCCC partnered with eight local microelectronic manufacturers in 2013 to develop the initial MEMS curriculum. By incorporating feedback from the field, Vanderford continually modifies classes to incorporate specific skills and training that companies request. Today, more than 40 local companies support the program by offering feedback, tours, internships and other opportunities to connect students with the industry. These partnerships are vital to the program, because students are required to have a paid internship to earn their MEMS degree.
“We train you in the skills and knowledge you need to get a job, through a year’s worth of hands-on practice combined with a year’s worth of internship experience along the way,” says Vanderford, the program’s curriculum developer, instructor and lab director. “We’re frequently talking to local companies to make sure that what we’re teaching is relevant.”
An earn and learn model that works for students and employers
As soon as MEMS students start learning these skills, they also start hearing about job opportunities at local companies that need those skillsets. The internship program allows students to earn and learn, working in their field while earning money toward their tuition costs. While Vanderford stays in touch with local engineers about technical job requirements, his colleague Courtney Tenhover, program developer in workforce development, talks with hiring managers to understand HR needs and internship opportunities.
“That’s another thing the MEMS program does really well; they give you job listings and tell you about all the companies that are hiring,” Brown says. “Day one, he’s telling you about all the jobs available across Northeast Ohio. As soon as you send Courtney your resume, she sends it over to the companies, so the program really helps you get a job.”
That’s how Brown learned about an internship opportunity with BTG Labs (formerly Brighton Technologies Group), a materials science company. Along with six other students, Brown worked under Vanderford’s supervision to complete a five-month research project for BTG.
“Even though I like more hands-on work, the research internship was beneficial because companies actually have jobs just for doing product research — and we already have that experience,” Brown says.
On the job and among LCCC graduates
Before the MEMS program bridged the gap, local employers struggled to find employees with these specialized skills. For example, Vanderford says only 30 percent of hires lasted more than a year in soldering positions at Lincoln Electric because they didn’t have the right training for the job. When Lincoln Electric saw what students were learning in the MEMS program, the company created a new position to leverage the incoming talent pool.
“MEMS students met the criteria for two different job titles that Lincoln Electric had, so they combined the two together to create a new position just for MEMS students,” Vanderford says. “Three students have been hired as quality assurance repair technicians to inspect, test and repair PCBs using the skills obtained in our program. Another two have been hired as interns with the opportunity to advance.”
When Brown’s class toured Lincoln Electric earlier this year, he knew he wanted to work there. He didn’t get the first position he applied for, but was thrilled to receive an invitation to join the company’s summer internship program, which opened the door to a job down the road.
After he earns his associate degree next year, Brown hopes to earn his bachelor’s degree while working his way up at Lincoln Electric.
“When you visit a company like this and you see that all the equipment they’re using is similar to what you’ve been using in class, you get a boost of confidence because you know how to use it,” Brown says. “You already have that one-up over people who don’t have that training.”
Vanderford says it gives local companies confidence, too, that LCCC’s MEMS students are fully prepared to enter the quickly changing workforce. The program boasts 100 percent job placement success for graduates, as all students who have earned the associate degree in the past five years have received at least one full-time job offer.
“And many students get offers before earning their degree — more than half of the students currently in the MEMS program are interviewing with the college’s 45 industry partners,” Vanderford says.
“If you’re looking to get a degree and a job, this is the perfect program,” Brown says. “You’re getting paid to do an internship while attending school, and they work around your schedule because they support the program and want you to get that knowledge from LCCC. Employment is obviously the number one thing you want after you get a degree, and here you get it while you’re getting a degree. You couldn’t ask for anything else.”