In less than two years LCCC’s MEMS program helped Chris Mariner go from working retail to designing circuit boards being sent into space

When Chris Mariner decided it was time to start a new career, he was scared.

“I was unhappy with the work, but it was my family’s main source of income,” Mariner says. “And I had grown quite comfortable with the job and the lifestyle it was able to provide.”

But Mariner, now 34, was looking into the associate of applied science in mechatronics technology – micro electromechanical systems (MEMS) program at Lorain County Community College. It was a new and exciting program, and its graduates were in high demand.

Mariner just had to believe in himself.

“I was terrified to try something new and had absolutely no idea if I could complete the program; if I would like the work; if I would find a job that would match my current salary,” he says. “Convincing myself I could do this and I deserved to give myself a chance was the largest barrier I had to break.”

Absorbing it all

Mariner eased his way into the program, continuing to work his full-time job and taking one or two classes each semester. LCCC had designed the MEMS program similar to all its programs, making it affordable and accessible to working adults.

It didn’t take long though for Mariner to know he was in the right place and learning from the right instructor, Johnny Vanderford.

“Johnny teaches the material so well and with such enthusiasm, his students begin to love and absorb all of the information so easily,” Mariner says.

Vanderford made it clear that the information Mariner was absorbing was exactly what local employers wanted him to know. At the start of nearly every class, Vanderford showed listings of available MEMS-related jobs at local companies. He then drilled down into the job requirements and drew direct correlations between those requirements and the daily lab or lecture.

“We knew we weren’t just taking a class because it was required and the information would be forgotten by the next semester,” Mariner says. “These were real life skills we were learning and knowledge that would be used throughout our careers.”

Breaking the barrier

Chris Mariner (front) with Courtney Tenhover and Johnny Vanderford

While Vanderford taught Mariner the skillset he needed, Courtney Tenhover, program developer in the engineering, business, and information technologies division, was networking with local companies and recruiters on Mariner’s behalf and helping him perfect his resume.

Together they gave Mariner the confidence he needed to demolish the barrier that almost kept him from enrolling in the first place.

“By the end of my second semester, I got a well-paying internship, quit my job, and enrolled in classes full time,” he says. “I was ready to put all of my effort into this program.”

That internship was with Recognition Robotics, a technology company on the LCCC campus designing visual guidance sensors that communicate with robotics and automation equipment for industrial applications. Mariner was hired to assemble and calibrate the sensors and report bugs to the software team. But after talking with the owner more about his experience and career goals, he was given more tailored tasks.

“I was asked to reverse engineer a ring light printed circuit board we were currently purchasing from a third party and installing into our sensors,” Mariner says. “It was a very simple device that cost quite a bit to purchase. The goal was to reduce manufacturing costs by designing and building this ring light ourselves.”

This was the first printed circuit board Mariner designed for a company. He says it was simple, but extremely satisfying to design, test, and see it installed in a real product.

“I will forever be thankful for my time at Recognition Robotics – it was invaluable and one of the main reasons my career was able to get started,” Mariner says.

As graduation came closer, Mariner met with Vanderford after class to talk career. Mariner wanted to get into more design work, but was worried he wasn’t experienced enough. Design position weren’t as abundant as assembly or operator jobs and those that were posted, called for a lot of experience and four-year engineering degrees.

“I honestly wasn’t confident enough in myself to pursue these types of jobs because I felt I wasn’t qualified,” Mariner recalls. “But Johnny helped me get over this fear and I ended up applying for two different electrical design positions.”

Launching a new MEMS career

Mariner graduated in spring 2019 with his associate of applied science degree in MEMS. And thanks to Vanderford and Tenhover, he had job opportunities to choose from, including the one he ultimately accepted – electrical designer at Zin Technologies.

“I applied multiple times to Zin Technologies and didn’t hear anything for a few months, until Courtney got in touch with a recruiter and delivered my resume to them directly,” Mariner recalls. “There’s a huge difference between helping and giving 110 percent effort into making sure your students succeed.”

Two years in, Mariner is doing more than succeeding at Zin Technologies, a regional company that provides full lifecycle development of aerospace systems. He spent his first year designing circuit boards and then, when he saw an opportunity to fill a knowledge and communication gap between the company’s manufacturing and design departments, he began cross training.

Eventually Mariner was promoted to process engineer and is now developing and improving the company’s manufacturing processes for circuit boards being sent into space. Mariner enjoys the change and challenge each day brings.

“It’s very exciting and each project is unique,” Mariner says. “I’m consistently seeing new things come up and processes can always be improved.”

Mariner has come a long way in a short time, and says he is still in awe of his career transformation.

“I went from working retail, to designing circuit boards going into outer space in less than two years,” he says. “Not a whole lot of people can say that.”

“I went from working retail, to designing circuit boards going into outer space in less than two years. Not a whole lot of people can say that.”
Chris Mariner