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Paying it forward, 42 years later

Jeff Cole has been at the cutting edge of technology his entire life. His high school years in Michigan, which included a two-week gig building equipment for the electronics lab over Christmas break, helped set the stage for a stellar 42-year career in manufacturing.

After four years as a flight simulator tech fresh out of college, he worked on a contract for the US government to build a supercomputer, designed to help track and shoot down incoming ballistic missiles. “Back in those days, such a computer was the size of an average bedroom,” said Jeff. When that program was defunded, he went back into the private sector, entering the booming business of printed circuit boards, then transitioned to plasma processing for semi-conductor wafers – a focus that would carry him through the next two decades.

Like most in the high-tech world, Jeff was always looking to the future. Anticipating a surge in demand for the automation of most everything, he saw a niche for robots. “There were only a couple big players in this space at the time, and I truly believed my partners and I could produce something less expensive and more effective from scratch,” said Jeff. He sold the thriving company about 10 years later, staying on for two more years as its top software engineer.

In late 2021, an illustrious career in the rearview mirror but now suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, Jeff contemplated retirement. A Florida resident since 1982, he is married with three daughters, a son, and grandkids. If anyone deserved to take it easy and just enjoy life in the Sunshine State, it was Jeff. “I did a lot of soul searching, asking questions like: What do I really want to do the rest of my life? Shouldn’t I give back, share my experiences, make it so some folks don’t have to go through the hard knocks of life?” While he’s outgrown most of his hobbies, he made it clear he isn’t going to let M.S. take away anything but his golf game.

More looking for purpose than bored with retirement, Jeff started volunteering as an occasional workshop instructor for AmSkills. “AmSkills’ mission – Transforming lives and strengthening communities through workforce training and apprenticeships – was a great fit,” said Jeff. And knowing that the CEO was looking for an energetic new volunteer board member, Jeff was sure he’d be the top pick.

Then came the phone call: “I’m sorry, Jeff, we don’t need you on the board,” said Tom. Jeff shrugged it off…but then came the follow up: “We don’t need you on the board, because we need you on board…as an employee to build and lead our training in mechatronics.” From big companies like Amazon and Target, to strawberry picking operations in Plant City, mechatronics – which Jeff defines as the grouping of motors, electronics, hydraulics, pneumatics, and computers to get a job done – is an integral and fast-growing part of manufacturing and distribution. Does this mean robots will ultimately replace human beings in the workplace? “Absolutely not,” said Jeff. “The reality is that the more manufacturers use mechatronics, the more they need qualified technicians to maintain and repair that technology, which requires a higher-level set of competencies like those offered by AmSkills.”

AmSkills is popular among and endorsed by manufacturers because their training and curriculum is focused on the skills they need their workers to have, and that same relevance carries over to its instructors’ qualifications: they must be leading edge. Not to diminish the value of more than four decades’ experience, but as AmSkill’s new Mechatronics Master Instructor, Jeff’s certification in robotics was a must. Earning in likely record time 12 silver certificates from the respected Smart Automation Certification Alliance (SACA), he traveled to Indiana where he successfully completed hands-on performance assessments and was awarded gold credentials across the board. “The written knowledge exams and hands-on assessments were certainly intensive, but my career had me well-prepared for the task,” said Jeff.

To his knowledge, Jeff is the only individual in the state of Florida with 12 gold SACA credentials, and he’s not aware of any other organization in the US with a more comprehensive and successful training program than AmSkills. The organization’s two-week Career Discovery Bootcamp Program is fully mobile and free of charge. “We take away any transportation or financial challenges by meeting folks where they are,” said Jeff. “We teach them relevant skills, guarantee multiple job interviews, boast an 80% hire rate, and even offer follow up counseling.” AmSkills is also home to the first registered High School Pre-apprenticeship Program in the state of Florida, based at Anclote High School.

Jeff says everyone has a story about how they came to AmSkills and why: A man who was in the IT sector for years but wanted to get back into manufacturing. A woman who couldn’t read, said “Bootcamp was hard, but I’m not a quitter and now I can read.” A former homeless man who now has a roof over his head thanks to his job. And the first ever deaf candidate, assisted by an interpreter both during the Bootcamp and at the workplace. While most candidates have never worked in manufacturing, 100% who complete the program leave with skills that will help them succeed.

As to why Jeff came to AmSkills, it’s all about people, place, and purpose. “I now realize that everything I did during my 42 years in the business was to help AmSkills in their mission to help others.”