Long-time machinist turns aviation interest into dream career
Michael Dodt had spent about 25 years working with his hands in the manufacturing industry, with the last 10 years working as a machinist. But those jobs were shrinking, and he knew he needed a plan. “I had to skill-up somehow, because jobs in Fresno as a machinist were scarce and the job market was terrible,” he says.
He took inventory of his interests, abilities and reasonable investment of time and money toward a career change. “I thought about what I could go to school for, and the thought of computers just didn’t interest me,” says Michael. “I was always interested in aviation but didn’t know I could make a career out of it.”
Michael first got interested in aviation in the 1980s when Burt Rutan built Voyager, the first airplane to fly around the world non-stop. “I followed him after that because he always built unique airplanes.” Michael stepped up his interest in aviation when he joined the Marine Corp. “I could identify all types of aircraft,” he says.
After kicking around a few career ideas, Michael saw an advertisement for SJVC’s Aviation Maintenance Technology (AMT) program at the Fresno – Aviation campus, located at the Fresno Yosemite International Airport. It seemed a long shot, but he decided to check it out.
Coincidentally, Michael’s 18-year-old son had just graduated from high school and was having a difficult time finding a job. Mike Jr. had struggled in school, so he felt at a disadvantage. “He just wasn’t interested in high school, didn’t have the motivation, and it was easy to slip through the cracks. He didn’t want to go to a four-year college and realized he was going to end up working in fast food.” It was a situation familiar to many recent high school grads.
Like his father, Mike Jr. had some serious mechanical skills. “Since he could walk, I always had him working on cars and other stuff with me,” says Michael. “When he’s interested in something, he applies himself.”
Mike suggested they both check out the program. “I told him if he liked it, we would both go.”
They made an appointment to tour the campus and explore the program components and employment potential. Both liked what they found. “When I saw the set-up at the school, I was pretty much all in,” says Michael. “It was actually in a real airplane hangar with three or four planes and parts,” he says. “I knew that we’d get a lot of hands-on learning there, and that’s what I was looking for.”
Mike Jr. was right behind him. “He didn’t realize he was interested in aviation until he came here,” says Michael. “This just sparked his interest.” They were both happy to have found something in which they could envision a future.
Like super-charged jets, they took off. “He (Mike Jr.) got here and he just accelerated,” says Michael. “Usually parents and kids that age don’t talk too much, but we were together 8 hours a day and it kind of helped our future relationship. We now speak as contemporaries more than father-son. It’s a really cool relationship.”
Both father and son successfully completed the Associate of Science degree program and shot off into careers in their chosen field. Mike Jr. left to work for SkyWest in Wisconsin and Michael Sr. commuted to Mojave to work for Scaled Composites, a company Michael’s hero, Burt Rutan, started.
Michael stayed in touch with the Aviation campus and occasionally the suggestion that he consider a teaching position there would come up. Over time, the idea became more attractive. “I didn’t really have any teaching experience, but where I worked, you’re always training somebody,” he says. “But getting up in front of people every day and speaking would be kind of strange.”
He decided to stretch his comfort zone and has been an instructor on the Aviation campus since September of last year. “I’m pretty well sold on this teaching thing; I love it,” says Michael. He sees himself as an example of what his students can accomplish and helps them through the struggles he once felt and overcame.
“Many students are like me and haven’t been in school for a long time,” says Michael. “It’s part of my job to get them back into school mode and teach them study skills, professionalism and how to interact with people in a positive way. It’s not just teaching content, it’s a lot of life skills.”
Sometimes it gets personal. “Some of our students don’t have the opportunity to go to a big four-year college and some of them have had a lot of failures in their lives,” says Michael. “One student I had really beat himself up all his life. I worked with him to help turn his self-image around. One day I heard him sharing a lesson with another student. That told me he realized he could change his own life. It’s amazing to see them blossom into successful people.”
Michael likes to shape attitudes. “I really have a chance to set their mood for the day. I’ve seen when a class is not quite awake or they’re in a certain low mood, and I have the power to turn it to a positive. If people aren’t having fun while we’re doing it, that’s not the way to go. I really have a chance to set the mood for the day for them.”
“Michael is the first instructor that our new students have, and he has a way of making them feel welcome and at home in the classroom,” says Lionel Smith, Aviation Campus President. “Many of the students have not been in a classroom in many years and he is making the transition back fun and exciting for them.”
As a new teacher, Michael knows he doesn’t always have the right answer to his students’ questions. “I’ve got a policy,” he says. “If I can’t answer it, I write it up on the board, and it doesn’t come off the board until I get an answer. It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know.’ It also helps my students put their hands up right away when they need help. They’re not worried about other people thinking they’re dumb if they don’t know something.”
Michael brings to his classroom the values that shape his life. “Everything that drives me in life I learned in the Marine Corp. Work ethic and camaraderie. And the number one trait for an aircraft mechanic is integrity. It’s all about what you do when no one is looking. In this career, you have to know that you did the job right and didn’t endanger someone’s life. It’s confidence in what you’re doing and being able to sleep at night.”
Aviation Maintenance Technology students and graduates are getting a lot more than the career education and training they anticipated. They are getting the framework for a successful life.
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