For many high school graduates, college is the expected next step. For Ryan Cole of Kalispell, it didn’t cross his mind as a possibility until after he spent 12 years working in labor and service jobs.
“I did anything I could do without a degree: snow removal, lawn work, warehouse work, the grunt on construction sites, started dishwashing at 16 and tried fast food before going into restaurants,” Cole said.
At each job, Cole, a Flathead High School graduate, met people transitioning from high school into the workforce.
“I’d say, ‘What are you doing here? You’re young, you got potential,’” he said. “Then it clicked in my brain, ‘What am I doing here?’”
Tonight, Cole, 30, will be the first person in his family to graduate from college.
He’s graduating from Flathead Valley Community College with an Associate in Applied Science degree as an electronics technician. On Monday he started a full-time job with Meissenburg Designs, a Bigfork-based company that distributes products across the nation.
College felt like a risk to the harsh balance he and his wife had created by working long hours to support their two daughters. But once the thought crossed Cole’s mind, he had to do it.
At 3:30 a.m. each day, Cole was at work as a managing janitor at Target. By 10 a.m., he was engineering projects in the FVCC Occupational Trades building. By 3:30 p.m., he was picking up his daughter from school.
Cole will be a part of the second cohort of Advanced Manufacturing graduates from FVCC.
When he walked onto campus in 2013, the college was unrolling programs in machining, electronics and industrial maintenance.
Those programs were spawned during the recession when the local unemployment rate soared to as high as 13.8 percent in early 2010.
Chris Parson, the project director for the Center for Manufacturing Advancement at the college, said the sharp increase led FVCC to look for the holes in Montana’s workforce. He said the college worked with local businesses to create programs that could quickly turn into careers.
He said a major gap was in manufacturing and technology.
“These programs were built from the information our local industry provided us as far as what classes and skills needed to be included, so graduates could hopefully go directly into jobs,” Parson said.
According to the second annual report on the state’s high-tech industry by the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, businesses reported that attracting skilled technology workers was their firm’s largest impediment to growth.
“Companies are looking for graduates like Ryan,” Parson said. “It’s a great opportunity to get someone who lives in the valley and wants to stay in the valley.”
Cole said he likes to watch things unfold. He likes machines that accomplish a small task through many tasks.
His capstone project was on light fidelity — or “Li-Fi” as a twist on Wi-Fi.
The system transmits data through LED lighting by transferring signals through high frequencies.
“You could be driving under a streetlight and get internet in your car from it,” Cole said. “It’s surprisingly simple.”
He said it’s important to see how things are created to be able to imagine how to build something from scattered parts. For now, Cole intends to focus on fixing machines. But in the future, he hopes to create new technology to reach underserved populations.
“The end game is being able to invent and build things to better people’s lives — and I see a lot of need in the valley,” he said. “That’s always been a goal, but in order to do that I need people, money and resources. But it feels possible and I see a lot of people out there doing that. It’s quite inspiring.”
Reporter Katheryn Houghton may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.