The young, aspiring machinist and manager Christian Johnson had to take some time off work on Wednesday to collect an award from Lanier Technical College — just what the college wants to see.
Johnson, the 20-year-old son of local chefs Bruce and Kim Johnson, was given the Georgia Occupational Award of Leadership by Lanier Tech on Wednesday. The GOAL is the highest honor a student can receive from the state’s technical college system.
During the same ceremony, Lanier Tech automotive collision repair instructor Damien Anderson was given the Rick Perkins Award for Excellence in Technical Instruction. He’ll be a booster for the college and his own program for the next year.
Johnson was one of four finalists for GOAL — all of them with remarkable personal histories. Others in the running included Rodica Nemes, a practical nursing student who came to the United States from Romania in 2006; David Tapia, a prospering cosmetology student who found his way into the college after dropping out of a four-year degree program; and Melissa Thornton, an accounting student who has put her life back together after struggling with addiction.
Johnson reflects the changing demographic face of the college, which is becoming younger as more high school graduates pursue technical disciplines.
At 18 years old, Johnson purposefully chose Lanier Tech for his continuing education instead of a four-year degree program, and now he’s two years into a four-year apprenticeship crafted on the German model — getting paid to work during the day while taking classes at Lanier Tech at night.
Fittingly, he’s an apprentice at IMS Gear, a German firm with a Gainesville plant that produces gears and a large number of industrial products, including robotics.
“I’m learning everything from the basics of hand tools to the machine side of — how to work CNCs and mills — going toward how to build and operate assembly lines and how to program … robotics,” Johnson said after being given the award. “At the end of it I should be able to fully understand all aspects of the robotics and automation.”
He’ll also have an associates degree from Lanier Tech, be certified as a journeyman in his field and have a German trade certification. And all the while, he’s been getting paid instead of paying other people for his education. As an apprentice, he was started at $10 and is eligible for two raises a year based on performance.
“I love building things anyway, I love anything physical with my hands — putting things together,” Johnson said. “The ability to be paid and learn how to do more complex things really intrigued me.”
When graduating from high school, Johnson said he bought into conventional wisdom and was making plans to attend a four-year degree program until one of his science, technology, engineering and math instructors, Ley Hathcock, encouraged him to look into technical college.
His parents supported the decision, and Johnson his now two years away from a high-paying, secure job in the STEM field. In the long term, the 20-year-old said he hopes to stay in the area working as a manager of assembly lines and robotics.
Johnson was raised in Gainesville until he was 9 years old, when his father lost his job and the family moved to the Caribbean and then Texas and, finally, back into Gainesville. The Johnsons own a restaurant in Lula.
The young machinist is not the only student at Lanier Tech heading to a nice payday with his technical education. In accepting his teaching award, auto collision repair instructor Anderson talked about one of his recent students now working in Savannah.
Anderson was telling the audience at the Gainesville Civic Center about the opportunities open to those who work hard in a technical program.
A graduate of Lanier Tech about three years ago, Stanley Page came to Anderson, his former teacher, last semester wanting to take him out to lunch.
“This is one of my favorite stories, and I love telling it,” Anderson said. “... My students don’t ever want to take me out to lunch, so I immediately accepted. He wanted to tell me all about his new job that he had just accepted managing a body shop down in Savannah — they started him out at $100,000 a year.”
Page had graduated debt-free from Lanier Tech and was working in auto shops for just more than three years.
“If that doesn’t motivate you as a person, as a teacher, I don’t know what else will,” Anderson said
But Wednesday was a day of motivation for the people involved with Lanier Tech, as the three other GOAL contenders talked to the audience about their backgrounds.
Nemes was born and raised in Romania under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. She came to the United States in 2006 after years working as a nurse in her home country, Europe and New Zealand, and she speaks English as a second language.
She’s going through Lanier Tech’s nursing program in order to work in Georgia, which she said doesn’t recognize her previous certifications.
Tapia is working his way through the school’s cosmetology program after dropping out of a four-year degree program and getting saddled with student loan debt. He has rededicated his life to pursuing his passion and getting back on the right track.
Thornton will graduate next year with an accounting degree — a remarkable achievement given what she’s had to overcome in her life. An adopted child, Thornton became pregnant at a young age and throughout her life was married three times and has five children.
The state took her children from her home because of her struggles with drug addiction. The student relapsed after her mother died of cancer, sending her deeper into her troubles, she told the audience.
But determined to get her life together, she got herself clean and enrolled in Lanier Tech. She’ll graduate in the next year.
“If you leave here today and you haven’t been touched by what these students had to say, what our instructors had to say, then we need to check your pulse,” Lanier Tech President Ray Perren told the audience after the nominees’ speeches.