Ken Hill knows how to turn adversity into an opportunity. In the recession-riddled economy, his skill at returning to college to learn new skills has served him well.
Clark College 2013 commencement records
• Largest class in history: Almost 1,900 degrees and certificates.
• Largest graduating class from Weekend Degree program.
• First graduates from Clark’s new high-tech Mechatronics program.
• Largest Running Start class: 215 high school students.
If you go
• What: 77th Clark College commencement. Covered, outdoor venue; umbrellas are not allowed. Concessions will be available. Accommodations for deaf and hearing-impaired guests available. Wheelchair service provided to guests who need assistance. Call 360-992-2314 for ADA accommodations.
• When: 7 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday; parking and seating open at 5:30 p.m.
• Where: Sleep Country Amphitheater, 17200 N.E. Delfel Road, Ridgefield.
• Cost: Free, public event. No tickets required. Parking is free.
On Thursday night, Hill will cross the stage to receive his diploma during the Clark College commencement. His wife and four children will be in the audience, cheering for him.
"It means a lot to me that my kids see me graduate," Hill said.
In 2001, the Camas resident had been building trucks at Freightliner, a division of Daimler Trucks North America, when he was laid off. So
he returned to school and graduated from Clark College's diesel technology program in 2003.
For seven years he worked in the diesel shop at a Portland-area truck dealership. Then he moved to an excavation company as a shop foreman, but he was laid off, so he returned to the truck dealership for three more years. But there wasn't enough work. He was laid off again.
When Hill registered for unemployment benefits, he discovered that Oregon unemployment benefits allowed him to return to school, but did not provide financial aid assistance. So he's paid for school with a combination of grants, student loans and book vouchers.
This time, he decided to train for an information technology career. He'd wanted to pursue an IT career for many years, but "through life circumstances, I've never had the opportunity to do it," Hill said. "Job layoffs and raising a family got in the way."
On Thursday, he'll earn an associate of applied technology diploma in Microsoft Network Technology and Cisco Network Technology.
"Getting more education is a life-changer," Hill said. "At home, we made the commitment and sacrifices to make it possible."
When Hill's unemployment benefits ended in December, just six months before graduation, he and his wife decided he should stay in school, and they'd find a way to make it work. They'd already tightened their belts. They tightened them more. His wife continued to work full time and to carry a heavier load while her husband earned his degree.
"We'd gone too far to not finish," Hill said.
Just four days before graduation, Hill spent Father's Day at the beach with his family. But he brought his books with him to prepare for his final test and a final project.
"I've been a diesel mechanic for 20 years. This is like learning a whole new language," Hill said. "It's been a big learning curve. I've been worried how I'll make the transition from mechanic to IT."
His instructor, Amber Peters, encouraged Hill to find an IT job in the diesel industry because he spoke both languages.
Just 10 days after his graduation, Hill will start a full-time, six-month internship with Daimler Trucks North America in Portland, where a decade ago he worked as a diesel mechanic. Now he'll be an information technology professional in a data management center.
"It's weird how everything comes full circle," Hill says, adding that five other Clark students in his program will be interns at Daimler, too.
At first he believed the internship was paid, but he learned it's an unpaid internship. Although he won't be contributing financially to his family for another six months, Hill will use the experience to build his résumé for his new career, which in a few years could result in above-average pay. According to the state Employment Security Department's latest data, computer network managers in this area earn an average of $72,145 annually.
Although the entry-level pay is not as much as he was making as a diesel mechanic, there's more opportunity for advancement and increased pay.
"We are pretty good with saving money for a rainy day," Hill said about his family. "We try to plan ahead for the worst-case scenario so we aren't caught off-guard. We haven't made it this far by being unprepared or wasteful."