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Sonoma County manufacturers help high-schoolers discover education, career options

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Brandon Jewell with the Career Technical Education Foundation Sonoma County moderated a panel discussion at 180 Studios in Santa Rosa during the second annual Sonoma County Manufacturing Day on Oct. 19. Panelists were Megan Dellavalle of Medtronic, Juan Alvarez of Viavi Solutions, Ian Serrano of Straus Family Creamery and Sean Winchester of Endologix.

Panelists were asked to respond to questions about their educational backgrounds and if a four-year degree was necessary for success, how they entered the manufacturing world, what they like most about their jobs, as well as the biggest challenge they faced during their careers.

MEGAN DELLAVALLE, MEDTRONIC: While in high school I met someone who worked with a medical MRI machine and shadowed her on the job. I also had college internships, including one at Medtronic. I’m now also involved with WISE, Women In Science and Engineering, to help other women advance in various technology areas.

In my position, I make a big impact on people’s lives, and my unit supports a number of worldwide bio-units. Back in high school, engineering involved a lot of math, which was not my best subject, since I was a biology and liberal arts student. But I wanted to enter this field. I struggled, got extra help, and put out a lot of effort. I love what I do. Sure, there will be obstacles, but you have to stick with it.

As a woman, I’ve been fortunate in the STEM field. In my BME (bachelor of biomedical engineering) degree program, there were more women than men. The same was true in my internship group at Medtronic. There are organizations that can support you, such as the Society of Women Engineers.

Whether or not to earn a four-year college degree depends on what you want – what works for you. For production floor, tech positions and some project-management jobs, a high school diploma may be all that is required. For engineering and advanced positions, you will need a four-year degree.

Do I use everything I learned in college? No. But critical thinking skills are vital. The key is determining what you need to know, learning how to get that knowledge and plotting a course for your future, while also having the drive and initiative to take you there.

SEAN WINCHESTER, ENDOLOGIX: I would approach those working in laboratory jobs that I found interesting, such as at UC Irvine, and ask them if I could have a chance to work with them as an intern – with or without pay. I asked another professor the same question at NYU and got the job.

I was a materials science major, but wanted to enter the bio-medical engineering field. I felt that the chemical and bio areas I had been studying were not close enough of a match, since I wanted to be part of the medical device industry. I had to be open to growing and flexible to change my course of study to match the job I wanted.

The biggest reward I receive from my career is the knowledge that I am helping patients have a better quality of life. I earned a university degree and am now working with stem cells in a polymer matrix. Like Megan Dellavalle, I don’t use everything I learned in college. But having an engineering degree shows employers that you have the ability to learn what you need to know in a relatively short time.

JUAN ALVAREZ, VIAVI SOLUTIONS: What I like most about my job is the amount of information I receive from my co-workers, scientists, chemists and engineers. All of this info helps you grow. When I was in grade school and growing up in East Palo Alto, it was a tough gang environment with shootings and drugs all around me.

I wanted to get away from this and not become part of the gang scene. At the same time, I didn’t want to separate myself from friends. I realized that I had to keep my distance if I wanted to move away from this environment. I stayed in contact, but not too close.

My parents gave me a strong foundation and I joined a martial arts program to gain the power to do the positive thing and help others. The mentors I had at Stanford University were awesome. My experience there was the first time I realized that I had an opportunity to succeed, so I started thinking about going to college. Looking back, I remember what I realized was most important for me — you must have the right people in your life.

IAN SERRANO, STRAUS FAMILY CREAMERY: I started at the tech level and worked my way up. I found that there are lots of opportunities and career option paths on the shop floor in areas such as quality assurance, as well as R&D support.

For me, uncertainty was the biggest challenge on my way to a career. It’s hard to find a dream job. You must have grit, stamina to keep pushing on. My advice is don’t waste time doing things you’re not interested in. Instead, focus on striving for a position doing what you truly like — and want — to do. Math is definitely important, and so is deliberate thinking and the ability to articulate what you want to communicate. In the fast-paced work world of today, you may have to make important decisions on the fly, so you must learn how to express yourself clearly.

Having a good understanding of the concept of quality is vital in my job at Straus creamery. The American Society for Quality is also a valuable source of information that helped me develop the skills I needed. It is equally important to learn how to work safely, not only to show peers and higher management that you are a safe worker, but so you can be an example for others in the workplace.