Interview: Michael Halbern, Mechatronics Professor at Sierra College, Turns Students Into Tax Payers

The Tech Connection recently spoke with Sierra College Mechatronics Professor Michael Halbern about his upcoming TechTonic talk, and his mission to fuel the local economy.

NCTC: What do you do at Sierra College?

MH: I’m a teacher at Sierra College, but really, I turn students into tax payers! Community colleges play an important role in providing job-ready graduates to companies that need folks with a unique set of skills, knowledge and abilities. That’s what we do in the Mechatronics program. 

NCTC:  What is mechatronics anyway?

MH: You know it as industrial automation, robotics. It’s the infrastructure you take for granted when you flip a switch to turn on the light. It’s everywhere. How does that stuff that is grown in the field get into the grocery store? Fresh veggies, a can of soup, a bottle of ketchup – to make that magically appear, there is a vast infrastructure of automation used to plant the field, water, fertilize, pick produce, and harvest. That infrastructure supports a behind the scenes process that transforms raw materials into foods that we purchase and consume, right here in the United States. Our Mechatronics program at Sierra College is unique – most mechatronics programs are outside of the US.

NCTC: How did this program come to be in our community?

MH: Our program exists because we were told by our industry advisory committee that there was a need for it in our region. We are constantly evaluating what we do and tweaking and changing it to better align the knowledge that our students are acquiring to the needs of employers in our region. We invite community members who have hired our graduates help to drive the program to better serve their needs, and make changes to our program to meet those needs.  

NCTC: Who might be interested in Mechatronics?

MH:  Our graduates are highly sought after, and most of them become gainfully employed. Parents who are concerned about their offspring becoming independent might want to learn about this program. Students who gravitate to the program and excel are students who have a natural curiosity about the way stuff works, and like to fix things. Once you learn the fundamental principles of how things work, you can figure out how to fix all sorts of things. 

NCTC: What can students expect to learn in the program?

MH: In the Mechatronics program, we don’t teach for one specific industry cluster – we teach the general principles of how things work and let employers provide specific training on specific equipment. It’s a project-based, hands-on program that prepares you for a job. Over 100 local and national employers have hired our graduates because with so much of the world being automated, there is a huge demand for people that can install, maintain, repair, and upgrade automated systems. Many employers have returned to hire a second, third or more of our graduates once they see the quality of the training our students have received and how quickly our graduates come up to speed on the job. Our graduates are in such demand that every semester 12 -15 employers show up at our department career fair specifically to recruit our graduates. There is enough need in our local community that we cannot supply enough graduates.

NCTC: What do you love about your job?

MH: We change people’s lives. That’s what keeps me coming to work every day. Plus it’s really cool stuff – it’s like show and tell in Kindergarten. And we all get to play with it!