Curiosity led Corbet Keith from musical instruments to microelectronics without ever leaving Northeast Ohio. After nearly a decade in one field, he’s carving out a new career through Lorain County Community College’s MicroElectroMechanical Systems (MEMS) program.
When Keith graduated from high school more than a decade ago, he wanted to be a music teacher. He started taking music education classes at a community college but then shifted direction, taking a job in a music store owned by his church choir director.
Curious, Keith kept wandering into the repair shop. His boss eventually made him an instrument technician, and for several years, he repaired instruments. Although he enjoyed the hands-on aspect of the job, it wasn’t quite what he envisioned for a career, so he started thinking about going back to school.
An offhand comment by his mother put him on his current track. She mentioned his situation to a friend who is an LCCC program adviser, who suggested Keith look into the college’s new MEMS program. Launched in 2013, the program offers hands-on training with emerging technologies used to manufacture printed circuit boards (PCB), sensors and other components for electronic devices. LCCC is the first community college in Ohio authorized to offer an applied bachelor’s degree.
“At first, I was like, ‘Oh mom, whatever,’” says Keith, a resident of Elyria. “But then I looked at it, and it sounded interesting. I went to an info session and realized it was exactly up my alley. I’m always taking stuff apart to figure out how it works, so electronics and I made a natural pair.”
Keith enrolled in the MEMS program in 2016 and is on track to earn his associate degree next year. And he’s already working full time in the field, putting his education into practice while building a career with unlimited growth potential in an industry that is expected to reach $26.8 billion by 2022.
Shaped by industry trends
At the MEMS information session, Keith met Johnny Vanderford, the enthusiastic curriculum developer, assistant professor and project manager for LCCC’s mechatronics program. In that hour-long overview, Vanderford explained the mission of the MEMS degree: “To bridge the gap between industry and education.”
To develop the program, in 2013, LCCC partnered with eight microelectronic manufacturers to create a curriculum that aligned with local industry demand. As employers struggled to find employees with the skills and training required in this emerging field, the program aimed to create the labor pool they needed.
The session gave Keith a glimpse of what MEMS classes would entail, as Vanderford took potential students on a tour of LCCC’s Center for Microelectronic Sensor Fabrication and Hybrid Board Assembly, a 2,000-square-foot Class 10,000 cleanroom. Donning lab coats, gloves, facemasks and hair covers, prospective students experience the laboratory environment as Vanderford demonstrates how equipment works, while passing around PCB components to put the coursework into context.
Vanderford promises to teach students how to make these components themselves by the time they graduate the program. But it’s not just about the skills they gain; it’s about the job opportunities those skills unlock.
“There’s a plethora of companies looking to hire people that have these skills, and we know a lot about that because this program requires students to have a paid internship in order to receive their degree,” Vanderford says. “That means everyone who earns this degree learns skills that translate onto the job, starting from the very first class.”
Connecting with opportunities
At a recent info session, Vanderford displayed a digital thermometer that Keith designed and assembled in his MEMS capstone class last spring.
“He was the engineer, artist, operator and product manager to develop this in a 16-week period, which demonstrates all the skills that companies are asking for,” Vanderford says.
The hands-on capstone class was Keith’s favorite so far.
“Johnny gives you specifications of a circuit he wants built, and it’s up to you and your classmates to figure out how to make it work,” he says. “We have to design the circuit, order the parts and prototype it ourselves.”
Throughout the MEMS program, Keith learned skills essential to PCB design and assembly, semiconductor fabrication and microelectronic packaging. Students even earn internationally recognized IPC J-STD-001 soldering certificates while learning to solder electronic components to PCBs.
“That certificate alone will open the door to certain jobs within these companies,” Vanderford says. “It comes in the first semester of classes, and no other college I know of offers that certificate as part of its program.”
Earlier this year, Vanderford told students about an opening at Synapse Biomedical, a company in Oberlin that develops neurostimulation devices to help patients with ALS and spinal cord injuries. Keith submitted his resume and was offered a position as a manufacturing associate. Although it’s not technically an internship, the job qualifies for work-based learning credits because Keith’s role is directly related to the coursework.
“I wind electrodes for stimulators in a cleanroom environment,” Keith says. “I have to solder a lot on my job — soldering wires and then soldering components onto printed circuit boards. I learned how to do that in the MEMS program, so those classes gave me a leg up on getting this job.”
And the company is reimbursing a portion of his tuition.
“Now you’re getting double the training, some on the job while you’re getting paid, and some in class — the cost of which will be offset by what you’re getting paid, so you have the option of leaving college debt-free,” Vanderford says.
After Keith earns his associate degree next spring, he wants to stay at LCCC to earn his bachelor’s of applied science in microelectronic manufacturing. The Ohio Department of Higher Education has authorized LCCC to offer the degree.
After that, Keith wants to pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering and work at NASA.
“I’ve been obsessed with space since I was little, so my ultimate goal is to make stuff that gets shot into space,” he says.
Thanks to the MEMS program, he’s already practicing skills that organizations like NASA need in their future workforce.
“In my opinion, LCCC has the best value for quality education you could possibly get in Northeast Ohio. You can’t beat it,” Keith says. “It’s an awesome school, especially for how little it costs to attend. The small class size really allows you to get hands-on experience, and that’s one of the biggest plus sides. The things I’ve learned in this program have gotten me to where I am now.”
Earn and learn
While Vanderford stays in touch with local engineers about their technical MEMS manufacturing needs, his colleague, Program Developer Courtney Tenhover, talks with hiring managers to understand HR needs and internship opportunities. The earn and learn program allows students to work in their fields, before graduation, earning money to help support their tuition.
“I update students regularly about which companies are looking for people with the skills we’re learning in class,” Vanderford says. “I’ll tell them, ‘One week from now, send your resumes to Courtney, and we’ll send them into the company.’”
Vanderford connects students and employers for internships and, ultimately, full-time jobs. The MEMS 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.
Helping students believe they can succeed
Johnny Vanderford is the enthusiastic curriculum developer, assistant professor and lab director behind LCCC’s MEMS program who creates excitement among his students and makes them believe they can succeed. He formerly worked as an engineer in MEMS packaging and testing at SMART Microsystems and as senior process engineer at GreenField Solar Corp.
“I was so excited about Johnny being excited. He made me feel like this was something I could do, even though I had been out of school for so long.” — Sheradowa Washington, student
“Johnny is honestly the best part about school because he’s so animated. He’s so passionate. I’d definitely recommend the program if you’re interested in electronics, but even if you’re not, his class can make you interested.” — Trey Brown, student
“Educators like Johnny Vanderford represent the very best of the teaching profession — a committed professional who gives himself fully to the growth and development of his students. I’m confident students in his programs are well-prepared and positioned to have an immediate impact upon graduation.” — Geoff Lipnevicius, operations manager, automation division, Lincoln Electric