Robert, 45, from Jacksonville, Florida, graduated the Refrigeration Technologies program in June 2021 at Tulsa Welding School in Jacksonville.
Thanks for sharing your story, Robert. What brought you to TWS in your 40s?
I took this seven-month course to become a refrigeration tech because I was looking at a complete career change. I got my associate degree in Drafting and Design in 2010, and after getting my degree, I worked for the railroad for nine years, but I got laid off because of COVID-19. I wanted something to complement that degree and my experience with drawing electrical plans.
I was about to ask why you enrolled in school last year.
Getting laid off is what pushed me to go to Tulsa Welding School because I felt I couldn’t really use that degree anywhere else. So, I was trying to further my career in the engineering field with more education.
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What did you do in your early life after high school?
I became an OTR driver. OTR is Over the Road. I was a long-haul, nationwide truck driver. I’d be away from home for weeks at a time. I did that for about 14 years, but I had to give it up to raise my son. That’s why I first went back to school in 2010.
Family comes first, I’m sorry to hear that. Why did you decide on refrigeration?
First off, I live in Florida, and it gets hot! I was looking for a career where I wouldn’t need to worry about getting laid off again. I knew that if I could work on ACs, I wouldn’t have to worry about losing my job because during the summertime, you’re the man here!
Did you have any experience at all? Are you handy, good with tools?
No professional experience, but I have worked with tools, I can work around the house. When I was growing up, my father taught me a lot about tools. I know one end of screwdriver from another! One thing I’ve always loved is tearing stuff apart. Until now I never knew how to put it back together.
What did you enjoy most about your time at Tulsa Welding School?
I enjoyed the instructors. You can ask them anything. If you had a question about something, the instructor would sit down with you and explain it, lay it out so you understand it. That was the best thing about the school for me. They always found time for you. The instructors were quite busy with large classes, but they made time to get to everybody with questions. I already had an electrical background; I took to it really quick.
Why did you choose the RT program, rather than the nine-month EMT program?
I actually wanted to do the nine-month Electro-Mechanical Technologies program, but I had to go to school at night, as I was working a part-time job. They just didn’t offer those classes at night. Once I get settled at my new job, I plan on going back to TWS to complete the credits I need to get my EMT diploma.
You graduated a couple of weeks ago, where are you working?
Johnson & Johnson Vision came to TWS at the end of April looking for graduates to join as engineering technicians, maintaining their machines. They make contact lenses here in Jacksonville. Their presentation just caught my attention. I talked to the guy and told him about my experience, and he encouraged me to come for an interview because I was the kind of person they were looking for.
When did you start, and what do you do?
I graduated on June 6 and started June 14, about 10 days ago. As an engineering maintenance technician, I work on a contact lens making machine the size of a school bus. I’m there in case of problems, to keep it running. If it jams, I free it up. If something more serious happens, I can shut it down and get it fixed. The supervisor says, “If I see you’re sat down, that’s great because that means the machine is running!”
Did they hire just you, or did they take a few TWS grads?
They say they’re in the middle of hiring frenzy now. They’re hiring as many people as they can get hold of. They told us in that meeting at the school that their workforce is aging. They’ve got a lot of people who have been there 30+ years who are ready to retire, and they’re also expanding their warehouse. So, they’re trying to replace people that are retiring and hire new people to run the new machines at the same time. I have a couple of TWS classmates here; we were joking that the Tulsa grads are starting to trickle over!
After 10 years in your last career, I’m guessing you’ve taken a step back in salary to start.
There is a little bit of a step back from the railroad job, but I was pretty much topped out there. There was no room for me to move up. The field is wide open here. I can go wherever I want. The fact that I’m working for the corporation means I don’t have to stay with the branch I’m working at now, in time I could move to other parts of the company. It gives me flexibility and the sky’s the limit. As long as I’m willing to pursue the education they require for a position, I can do it.
What’s your career plan? Would you like to retire from Johnson & Johnson in 20 years?
Yes, to be able to retire from here would be my golden plan. I’ve no interest in going anywhere. From what I’ve seen, it’s an awesome company. The staff is really friendly and helpful; they keep telling me that learning the machines is quite daunting, but take a step back, take it one day at a time, and I’ll be fine!
What is their training program like?
I’m in the middle of a four-week engineering class to learn the machines. Once I’ve finished the class, I go onto the floor to get certified on the machine. Then I’ll become what they call a line technician and then, as they say, I’ll start my shift working 12 hours a day.
Another great thing with Johnson & Johnson is my schedule. Once I get through training, I’ll work two days on, two days off, so I can pursue my own refrigeration business on the side. One week is what they call a long week when I will work four days, and then the next week is a short week when I work three days. Everything over 36 hours a week is overtime. So, starting my own residential AC business is something I’ve already started thinking about. I want to start working for family and friends first, work on their AC systems to build up my confidence, before I go to work for people I don’t know.
So, you’re not working in refrigeration, but you are using the same skills.
It’s kind of the same thing. Instead of dealing with refrigerant, I’m dealing with a different kind of fluid. It’s all just pressure. I’m dealing with hydraulics and pneumatics, and electrical. Electrical is really where my passion is. For the nine years I worked for the railroad, I drafted electrical plans. I’m already familiar with reading electrical drawings. From Tulsa Welding School to Johnson & Johnson was just ‘plug ‘n play.’
What do you enjoy most about your new trade?
I’m learning something new. I’m doing something that the people I talk to outside of work have no idea about. When I started working here, I had no idea how contact lenses were made, everything that goes into it. That’s what I love about it. It’s a learning experience. Every day I go into work and learn something new. It will be the same when on get on the line because the same thing doesn’t break on the machine. Every day will bring a different challenge.
Did you make some lasting connections, some friends at welding school?
I did make a few contacts. Most were with instructors; I was the oldest person in class, so I had more in common with the instructors. But I did meet a handful of students that I’m still in contact with; most of them came to work for Johnson & Johnson!
What advice would you give to students considering Tulsa Welding School?
Pay attention to the instructors. They’re very smart. They’re experts in their career fields. They know what they’re talking about, they won’t steer you in the wrong direction. They’ll help you as long as you’re willing to learn. The staff was just amazing at Tulsa Welding School.
If you’re a TWS graduate and would like to share your success and be an inspiration to others, please email [email protected] to be considered for a Graduate Connection interview. Please include details such as your graduation date (month/year), program, and campus name (Tulsa/Jacksonville/Houston).