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ConAgra Foods employee sets sights on new position with CVTC’s help

Monday, March 28, 2022

ConAgra Foods employee sets sights on new position with CVTC’s help

Image: ConAgra Foods employee sets sights on new position with CVTC’s help

Jordon Drake, 31, of Menomonie, takes mechatronics courses at Chippewa Valley Technical College’s Menomonie campus to support his new maintenance position at ConAgra Foods.

Jordon Drake began working for ConAgra Foods in Menomonie four years ago as a dryer cell operator.

“It’s not the most exciting job,” Drake admits, “but I was excited to learn the process, to tear down and clean and put it all back together.”

While doing that task, Drake, 31, realized he liked the maintenance part of the job. Tearing apart the machine and putting it back together excited him more than his day-to-day role.

He appreciated the mechanical side of things. When a maintenance position became available, he applied but was told he didn’t have the necessary skills for the job.

“I didn’t grow up with someone who … liked to turn wrenches,” he said.

Thankfully, ConAgra and Chippewa Valley Technical College have a process in place to offer skills needed in the food manufacturing businesses. For Drake, that means taking mechatronics classes at CVTC to gain the knowledge it takes to be a maintenance technician.

Drake said he wouldn’t have been able to get the education any other way, he said.

“I would never be able to go to school and now work,” Drake said. “I don’t have the financial means to go to school full time.”

Darrin Falk, Drake’s mechatronics instructor at the CVTC Menomonie campus said the one-credit courses Drake has taken to shore up his skills include open lab, which makes it easier for working students to get an education.

Falk, who has been teaching at CVTC for nearly five years, said students who come from industries have a distinct drive.

“They’re motivated because it’s helping them to advance in the industry,” Falk said. “Students select which courses they want to take, and it gives them an opportunity to a different pathway.”

Drake was impressed with what he learned throughout the past few semesters.

“It was so eye-opening,” he said. “What I thought I knew, I didn’t. I focused on what I needed to learn to relate back to here at work. What I took out of those courses I’ve already used here. We just ran into the same issue here that I learned in class.

“It feels like less of a job and more of a career or passion.”

After having a few courses under his belt, Drake moved into a maintenance position with ConAgra. Although Drake is working 12-hour shifts now and has a family, he still would like to keep working towards an associate degree in Mechatronics at CVTC.

“I am proud of myself,” he said of working hard for what he wanted his career to be. “This was a perfect environment for someone like me to strive. I can get through it as fast as it works for me. It’s motivating.”

Making mechatronics available to all

Mechatronics instructors at CVTC Menomonie campus take a unique approach to teach the courses, said Darrin Falk.

Falk has been teaching mechatronics in Menomonie for almost three years.

Making mechatronics available in Menomonie was imperative, Falk said.

“We’re filling a need that industry is seeing in the area,” he said. “Technology has changed so much – being a farm-trained mechanic isn’t enough.

“That’s kind of what our program is doing – giving people new technology and skills that will help them move forward.”

To cater to students with jobs and families, the mechatronics lab is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., and students can start their 4-hour time blocks whenever they are able. A one-credit course takes about 32 hours of instruction.

Falk teaches 14 classes, but on any given day he could be teaching an incumbent worker taking their first class, a third-semester program student and a student ready for graduation, all at the same time in the lab.

“The growth I see in these students in the short amount of time is incredible,” Falk said. “Their confidence increases as they go.”

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