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“TCC was the start to being successful in a position with zero experience”

Jonah Mericle isn’t your traditional engineer. He doesn’t have a four-year degree or wear a suit and tie to work.

He graduated in 2014 with a two-semester Career Studies Certificate in Computer-Aided Drafting & Design from Tidewater Community College, which laid the foundation for a future in drafting and design.

 “TCC was the start to being successful in a position with zero experience,” said Mericle, recently hired as a design engineer at QED Systems Inc. in Norfolk after spending five years at nearby Tabet Manufacturing.

Mechanically inclined, the Booker T. Washington High graduate got introduced to drafting as part of a now-defunct vocational education program through Norfolk Public Schools. He didn’t have money for college – in fact, he became a father as a teenager — but received enough financial aid to pay for tuition and books.

“It was pretty sweet,” he said. “I had my daughter at 18 and was working a low-end job trying to get somewhere. TCC gave me the tool set to pursue a better option, to create a great life for my family.”

Mericle became proficient in AutoCAD through TCC’s hands-on curriculum that reflects current industry standards. Mericle thrived in the program despite struggling with calculus. He credits TCC’s math lab for the C he pulled.

“That was success,” he said. “I spent three or four hours a day in there every week to get that.”

Prior to finishing his coursework, Mericle was “hired” as a drafter at Tabet, which offers custom design solutions for the military and industrial and commercial customers.

“I had 30 days to either stay hired or be fired,” said Mericle, who created a package of 60-70 drawings that earned him the full-time position in just over two weeks.

Mericle initially drafted working drawings under the supervision of engineers at Tabet. Once promoted to design engineer, he went to work designing command system consoles for military ships. Teaming with Tabet, he started his own 3D printing company, Tadlock Engineering.

Last month, Mericle transitioned to QED Systems’ HAB Shop, a “one-stop shop” that delivers engineering design, installation, technical documentation, maintenance support, logistic support and fabrication. His current project: designing a mess hall for the USS George Washington.

“Everything from the cabinets to the layout to the floors to the walls,” he said.

At Tabet, he hired drafters and turns to his alma mater first.

“I look for TCC graduates because I know how they were trained,” Mericle said.

Mericle recommends the trades as a viable career path, especially to millennials.

“It helps to be able to visualize in 3D,” he said. “This generation has been force fed that since day one thanks to video games.”

Mericle also touts the growth that a trade career offers. “This one degree can lead you to CNC programming, sheet metal mechanics, anything in manufacturing, “ he said. “Go on Indeed or Google and look up CNC programmer or underwater welder and compare it to what an engineer makes. It’s not even close.”

From here, go to work in advanced manufacturing

If you look at the fronts of McDonalds or Starbucks or even the student centers on Tidewater Community College’s campuses, you’ll see Alpolic®, a composite material that adds color and dimension and, of course, coverage to each building.

TCC graduate Dylan Starowicz is at work on the lamination line for Alpolic®, manufactured by Mitsubishi Chemical Composites America in Chesapeake.

At 19 years old, he is earning a competitive full-time salary with benefits. Starowicz earned his Career Studies Certificate in Mechatronics at the same time as his diploma from Great Bridge High.

“It’s a good idea to give people different avenues to go down, not just traditional college,” Starowicz said. “It’s important to get students to think about technical careers and branch out to try different things.”

Chesapeake Public School (CPS) dual-enrolled mechatronics students started taking classes in their home high schools as sophomores and spent part of their junior and senior years on TCC’s Chesapeake Campus training in state-of-the-art labs.

“The old manufacturing jobs don’t exist anymore. Now it’s all computer-controlled, and we are looking for people who can use their minds, not their backs,” said Bill Yannetti, president and CEO of Mitsubishi Chemical. “Students who’ve gone through the TCC program bring a definite skill set, and they have value in our company right away.”

Thanks to partnerships with the City of Chesapeake Department of Economic Development and the advanced manufacturing sector, all of the CPS dual-enrolled students were awarded full scholarships by area firms. Donor companies include Mitsubishi Chemical, Sumitomo Machinery Corporation of America, USUI USA, Yupo Corporation America, GeoQuip Manufacturing Inc., Air Systems, Inc., Manufacturing and Design Technology, Inc., Nitto Inc., and TowneBank.

Mechatronic students also earned industry credentials and can apply all their credits to an Associate of Applied Science in Mechatronics, which they can complete in just one year.

“Dylan is a breath of fresh air,” said Tim Elixson, production manager at Mitsubishi Chemical. “You actually can hear the education speaking for itself. He asks a lot of forward-thinking questions.”

“This is what the program was created for and I wish I had more candidates just like him.”

Starowicz monitors machinery, troubleshoots problems and ensures quality control of products coming off the line.

“There was a little learning curve at the start, but I’ve settled in,” he said. “I’m very fortunate to have this opportunity and see it as a stepping stone for my career.

“I feel like I’ve come full circle. They helped me out and now I’m working for them.”