Scott Cooper did not expect to go back to school.
Cooper, 40, joined the Army at age 23. He was an ammunitions specialist, serving most of his enlistment at Fort Benning, Georgia.
“I actually would have liked to stay in the Army,” says Cooper.
Cooper suffered a life-altering injury while on a training run. He put his foot in a hole and fell, and then was trampled by 3 other soldiers.
“It ruptured 3 discs,” Cooper says. “I was 24-years-old and no one wanted to operate on me at that time. I stuck it out as long as I could, and I got out of the Army with an honorable discharge.”
Cooper took a job at TVA Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant. As an armed response officer, he had to carry 56 pounds of gear including a rifle, gas mask and bullet-resistant vest. The weight did a lot more damage to his back than he realized. He ruptured those discs further and finally had to have surgery. Cooper was out of work for 9 months. He worked for another year when a doctor told him he’d be in a wheelchair by age 50 if he continued.
Cooper received disability benefits from the VA, and was eventually placed on Social Security disability. He didn’t work for 8 years.
“In that time I started getting better,” Cooper said. “I started exercising more and changed my medication.”
Now a single dad, Cooper was motivated to get back to work for his three sons. Finding a job, he says, was a nightmare. Education was hardly an option either.
“I knew I wanted to go back to school. I knew I needed to take that next step but I knew I did not want to do a 2-year or 4-year degree,” Cooper says.” I couldn’t afford to do it with 3 children. Not so much the money, but the time wise. You don’t have that kind of time.”
While looking for a job, Cooper had attended vocational rehabilitation through the VA. On his third visit, he received a pamphlet about KTECH.
KTECH is a workforce training initiative of the Kids to Love Foundation. The course teaches Mechatronics, a highly-sought after skill set in the advanced manufacturing industry. Mechatronics combines mechanics and electronics. It is becoming increasingly common in manufacturing, including automated car assembly arms, hospital equipment, and machines that place circuit boards in consumer electronics.
As Cooper researched KTECH and Mechatronics, he realized it would take 2 years at a community college to complete the same training.
“I decided to give it a shot,” he says
The math was intimidating for Cooper. He says he spent a lot more time studying than the other students in order to understand. Cooper also credits the individualized instruction and mentoring that is unique to KTECH.
“You get a lot more one-on-one time than you ever would anywhere else,” he says. “I never would have believed that I’d be doing the type of math I’m doing now with very little understanding of Algebra.”
Cooper graduated from KTECH in May. He also passed certification to become a Level 1 Siemens Mechatronics Assistant.
Cooper is now employed at Sanmina, and every day uses the skills he learned at KTECH.
“I de-bug circuit boards that have failed the test,” he says. “That’s what I do all day is search for shorts and opens and check intolerance on resistors and capacitors. I enjoyed it in school, so getting a job doing that was right up my alley.”
Cooper believes KTECH can put other veterans on a successful career path.
“I think the mentality of the people that join the military can bring a lot to the KTECH program. And I think they can take a lot away from it, too,” he says.
ATC (AW) Edward Brunner, USN, Ret. is the lead instructor at KTECH. Brunner has more than 20 years experience as an Aviation Electronics Technician. His passion for Mechatronics came when he was assigned to an Unmanned Aerial Unit command under the United States Army. Brunner quickly learned unmanned systems and robotics were the wave of the future. He credits his service in the Navy for his professional success.
“The Navy has outstanding technical training which in turn was directly applied on sophisticated equipment the world respects,” Brunner says. “Had I not joined the Navy, I would have been in a low wage, unskilled position for most of my life. Our students have many of the same challenges that I did when I was 20-years-old so I can easily relate.”
Brunner acknowledges there are other opportunities for veterans to become trained, but not all veterans fit the criteria for assistance.
“We [KTECH] can provide additional opportunities for a veteran who seeks to kickstart a technical career in electronics, mechanics, fluid power, and computer controls, and get an internationally recognized certification within either a 15 week course or 6 month course,” Brunner says. “Our program can give them the fundamentals and basic skills that appeal to employers who would give them [our graduates] an opportunity to demonstrate that they have potential, drive, and professionalism to invest in.”
The professionalism Brunner speaks of is honed through KTECH’s soft-skills training called Momentum for Life. Momentum for Life is a specifically designed curriculum that builds a foundation of healthy living, financial security, professional etiquette, and individual responsibility. Sessions include guest lecture, discussion, hands-on activities or labs and individual or group projects.
“The best one for me was the banking one,” Cooper says. “I had recently gotten divorced, and I got custody of the kids so I wanted to show them the right way it was done. From the banking to dad going back to work, they got to see all that transition so I think it was not good just for me but for them, too.
The end result for KTECH students is not graduation. The KTECH staff works diligently to help them secure a job. Every student in KTECH’s inaugural class was employed within 30 days of graduating. From there, the sky is the limit.
“My boss keeps telling me he’s got plans for me,” Cooper says. “It’s all kind of up from here.”
KTECH is currently accepting applications for new students. Classes for the 15-week accelerated program begin on August 29th. You can learn more about the program by visiting www.kidstolove.org. If you have questions about the program, you may email Dorothy Havens, Director of Workforce Development at Dorothy.firstname.lastname@example.org or call 256-880-3455.