The stars – and great jobs – lined up for Maintenance Technician program graduate
Nathan Barlow did not know he was going to be a super star in the Maintenance Tech field. In fact, he didn’t know he would do much of anything in a career after he left the Army at the end of eight years of service.
He had suffered a serious hearing loss in the military and felt insecure about his potential for learning new skills. “When I was a kid, I had a problem paying attention in class and was told I’d never amount to anything,” says Nathan. But his grandmother raised him to believe otherwise. “She always reminded me, ‘Whatever you put your mind to, you can do it.’”
At 25-years old and with no clear direction toward his future career future, Nathan was feeling the pressure to make good on his grandmother’s opinion of his capabilities.
It was his dad, Jerry (JB), who nudged him toward SJVC’s accelerated Maintenance Technician program on the Modesto campus where he was already an MT student. Nathan decided to schedule an appointment and check it out.
“Me and Steve Sohacki (MT faculty) had a connection right away,” says Nathan. “He told me this was the real thing, but I’d have to focus, pay attention.” The potential for high earnings in this field had a lot of appeal. And the military provided generous financial support toward veterans’ education. He was all in.
Nathan knew immediately that this was where he could excel. Everything about MT program classes fit a groove in his interests, talents and potential for growth and future income. He was challenged but intrigued.
“I took PLC (Programmable Logic Controller, an industrial digital computer used to control manufacturing processes) and it was an amazing class,” says Nathan. “It was like speaking Greek for the first time. Steve is the one teacher in my life who would sit with me; he wouldn’t give me the answer; he’d watch me and say, ‘You’re pretty close.’ “Then one day – it clicked. From that point, everyone was looking over my shoulder.”
Nathan’s classmates became team-members who worked closely on projects, problems and solutions. They also became friends. “You see how many different avenues people can take to get to the same answer,” says Nathan. “You only get that from working with a lot of people and ideas.” Collaboration brings closeness and a true team spirit. “SJVC is not just a school; it becomes like a family to you where everybody helps everybody out.”
Nathan’s job search was short-lived because it was evident to would-be employers that he had the goods. His technical skills and training, his ability to identify problems and solutions were immediately apparent.
He began his first position as a Maintenance Technician just a month before he graduated from his MT program. He struggled to balance coursework with his new work responsibilities but was happy to have landed solidly in his new field.
He gained solid work experience and thirteen months later he accepted a position working with machine hydraulic presses that came with a dramatic pay increase. “The job was more hands-on experience with hydraulic machine presses, using technical, hi-end equipment,” says Nathan. He did not quite make it to his one-year anniversary before a large glass company reached out through LinkedIn and invited him to be their Lead Technician.
“To be hired as a PLC Programmer was a promotion, right off the bat,” says Nathan. “It was because of my extensive training at SJVC and almost two years of experience.” He was very happy in his work. “We were making all the residential and industrial glass. Everything was robotic, and I knew all the parameters for the glass.”
Nathan’s rise in his industry was not going unnoticed. “I got a call from a recruiting agency that had been tracking my career for a few years and who was looking for a supervisor. They told me, ‘You’ve been a technician long enough. With your military and you went to SJVC (where I always placed in the top 1% of technical, verbal and mechanical skills), we have an opportunity for you.’”
Nathan makes two important points: “Especially with social media, people are always watching you, so you have to be careful. Always give your best to your industry because, it doesn’t matter where you are in life, there’s always a higher goal ahead.”
Career goals for Nathan include preparation for those moments of advancement opportunities. “You have to stay up with the times because equipment and technology are always changing. If you’re serious about your career there are free courses to show you what’s changed. You have to take time out of your life to dedicate to YouTube videos to make sure you understand and stay up on your industry and skills.”
A couple of years ago Nathan got another enticing call. By then Nathan was married to Lindsay and their daughter, Millie, was on the way. He is happy in his work, but always game for a new and advancing career move that might benefit his family. He accepted a position as maintenance supervisor for three plants operating in three states. “They hadn’t had a supervisor for over two years, had been running a skeleton crew because of Covid-19, and I came in and reorganized the parts department.” But he knew this company was or shaky ground.
“Since I’ve graduated from SJVC, I’ve never gone out and applied for a job, and my career has skyrocketed,” he says. But he did update his LinkedIn profile to a status of Open to Opportunity.
It took exactly 11-days for opportunity to knock.
The Human Resources Manager for Select Harvest remembered Nathan from previous jobs where he had stood out as someone to call to fix their robots. “‘You were always the best,’” she told me. He accepted their offer to be the Maintenance Manager for their Turlock facility.
Sixty days in, Nathan had operations performing at optimal levels. “I have a great team I’ve basically trained up on how things are supposed to be done,” he says. “Every day they (management) tell me, ’It seems like you’ve been here forever. Not only have you saved us half a million dollars on breakdown of equipment, but you’ve brought the skill level up of other technicians from a Level 1 to a Level 3.’ “Before, they were spending all this money subcontracting, now we’ve terminated all our contracts with electrical, boilers, etc., and now do it all in-house.”
There’s another benefit of Nathan’s skill level and leadership. “Guys beneath me who had never picked up a welder before are now State certified welders.” He encourages his team to stretch higher in their work capabilities and their job certifications.
Nathan is an innovative problem-solver at heart. His plant was looking at buying a conveyor belt at about $8,000. “I thought we might have something in our boneyard (scrap parts) and was pretty sure I could use a variable frequency drive to program what we wanted. In three days, we had a conveyor that could go forward and backward that cost the shop $315. I had five technicians standing around watching me and asking questions. To be able to teach what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, was just so rewarding. That’s the way maintenance should be done.”
Nathan is on fire and showing others what it is like to feel that burn of success. “Now, I look at a problem and think of three different ways I could fix it.”
The rewards and benefits match the effort and success. “I’m pretty sure this is the company I was meant to be at,” he says. And he is taking high aim at an environment full of potential. “Already, I want to run a plant,” he enthuses. Two brothers have successfully run the operation to this point, but growth is inevitable and Nathan is ready to step in. “It’s getting so big, we can’t run this like a farm anymore,” says Nathan. “We’re going to need Presidents, CEOs and Plant Managers; but the higher you go you kind of step away from the people and get closer to the company.” Nathan will always strive to keep his feet in both worlds.
Lindsey predicted Nathan would one day be at this place in life. “She told me, ‘You need to be the boss and the person they not only look up to, but who they can trust.’ “She’s the one who helped me become a supervisor, asking me, ‘Why don’t you think bigger?’”
Nathan has been lucky to find voices of encouragement and praise that have echoed his drive and ambition. “I am clay that is molded by a lot of people, a reflection of a lot of other great people who helped create me. We’re giving and taking knowledge to each other that makes us grow.”
Nathan remembers a fellow student in his MT class who really struggled to stay in school. “He came from an underprivileged family and was getting behind in class,” says Nathan. “He was a really quiet guy, but really smart. I told him, ‘One day you’ll be running a company and making six figures. What is 7 months more of hardship for a lifetime of a career?’”
Nathan still connects with his many of his SJVC classmates when someone wants to brainstorm solutions to a technical problem they have on the job. He was especially surprised to hear from his former ‘quiet’ classmate who seems to have fulfilled Nathan’s prediction of a few years ago. “He told me nobody had ever told him what I’d said to him in class that day and he hadn’t forgotten it. He said, ‘Look at where I am now. I’m making $120k a year and I have a family.’” Nathan was not at all surprised.
Everyone has the ability to create their own opportunities. “People can get too comfortable and say, ‘Well, this is what life gave me.’ “But it’s really what you make it. So why not make it bigger?”
Nathan is living his own best advice.
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