Penn College grad takes 'nontraditional' route to success
For years, unhealthy pursuits in the midst of unemployment blurred the bleak destination awaiting and provided distractions from a life spiraling out of control.
The intervention of individuals he respected helped Burton eventually realize his destructive route. He accepted the challenge to turn his life around for the sake of his family and himself.
“I needed to jump off this train somewhere,” Burton said. “I didn’t know where I was going to land.”
Fortunately, he landed at Pennsylvania College of Technology. A hard-earned associate degree in electronics launched a rewarding career.
“Penn College was probably the best stop in my life’s journey,” Burton said. “I can’t imagine where I would be if not for Penn College. They opened so many doors that sometimes I can get lost in which one to go through.”
The latest door opened to ITW Professional Automotive Products, which designs and manufactures components and parts for vehicles globally. Burton is an automation engineer, overseeing 35 assembly units divided among ITW’s Lakeville, Connecticut, plant – where he’s stationed – and two facilities in Illinois. His division manufactures the plastic sleeves that connect vehicles’ headrests to mounting bezels located on top of seats. The sleeves allow for adjusting the height of headrests.
“We’re probably producing about a hundred million sleeves per year,” said the 2009 graduate. “We make them for almost any vehicle that you can think of.”
ITW is a just-in-time manufacturer, meaning its production output is expected to be shipped and installed in automobiles within days. If ITW’s parts are late for a model on the assembly line, the automaker must pull the unfinished vehicles and change the line to accommodate a different model car until the parts arrive. That process can take days.
“The automotive industry does not like to wait,” Burton said with a chuckle. “When we don’t get our parts to them on time, it falls back on us. Meeting our supply demand is pretty much the biggest challenge we face.”
Burton plays a key role in meeting that challenge. On a daily basis, he addresses any problems that arise with the automated assembly units at the Lakeville plant and does the same for the two Illinois facilities via online support.
“Whenever there’s an issue that someone doesn’t understand, it comes to me, and I see if I can get that equipment up and running,” he said. “The funny thing is that my mom reminds me all the time, ‘You always took stuff apart and could never put it back together. Now, you’re paid to put it back together!’”
Growing up about an hour outside Philadelphia in Willingboro, New Jersey, Burton enjoyed working and learning with his hands. Career and technical education courses prompted him to enroll in an electronics school following his high school graduation. That specialized course of study led to stints as an electronics technician for the likes of Lockheed Martin, Bell of Pennsylvania and General Electric.
Bench work measuring electric signals and testing and creating circuits didn’t fulfill him. After GE laid him off, Burton decided to explore other options. The one he kept coming back to was electronics engineering. But self-destructive behavior kept him from fulfilling that wish.
“I had too much time on my hands, and I ran into some life challenges in Philadelphia,” he explained. “I came to Williamsport to make a change and get back on a healthier path.”
That change didn’t happen immediately.
“I continued to find trouble,” Burton admitted. “The tracks I was on lead to one of two outcomes – incarceration or death. I had to make a drastic change.”
Burton’s wife, Victoria, his six children, and others inspired him to make that change.
He cut off people who didn’t have his best interests in mind and obtained part-time jobs to pay off debt from electronics school. One of those positions introduced him to Penn College. A temp agency placed him at the college to wash dishes in one of the school’s dining units.
Impressed by the college’s facilities and people, Burton soon swapped dish towels for textbooks.
“The idea to go back to school had been in my head for years,” he said, “but I couldn’t stay out of trouble. While working at Penn College, I said to myself, ‘This is going to be the right opportunity here.’”
It was, despite Burton’s 15-year absence from the classroom.
“I was frightened,” he recalled. “I took a summer program to get me back in the right frame of mind for college. When the instructor said, ‘Turn on the computer,’ I was lost because I hadn’t touched a computer since they had rocker switches! The instructor told me that things would be OK. And after she said that, I’ve been rolling ever since.”
But it wasn’t easy. Burton juggled classes with family responsibilities (five of his children were living with him at the time) and working as a maintenance electrician at an aluminum manufacturer in Williamsport and later at Con Agra Foods in Milton.
He credits weekly trips to the college’s Academic Success Center for tutoring in math and English and the encouragement of faculty for earning an associate degree in electronics technology, making the Dean’s List and receiving a graduation award for his GPA.
“I don’t know if I could have made it without them,” Burton said of electronics faculty Jeff L. Rankinen, Randall L. Moser and Perry R. Gotschal. “They kept me going. They helped me feel better about being a nontraditional student. The things they taught me were absolutely fantastic and of great value as were the labs and hands-on experience.
“The faculty invested in me because I invested in myself. I was staying after class, knocking on their doors and sending them emails asking questions. After a while, they were probably like, ‘There’s that damn Ryan again.’”
Not so, according to Rankinen.
“Ryan was outgoing and got along well with other students and faculty,” the associate professor said. “He was diligent about working on assignments. I’m not surprised by his success. Ryan demonstrated the qualities that employers look for: work ethic, ability to work with others, ability to learn, technical skills, humility and problem-solving skills.”
Since graduating, Burton’s employed those attributes in roles with increasing responsibilities for a number of companies, including three-plus years at Nordco, which provides equipment, parts and services for rail-related industries. As a field service engineer and transducer department team leader, Burton traveled throughout the United States and the world for Nordco’s division focusing on ultrasonic testing of rails. Stops included Italy, Germany, Turkey, Singapore, the Czech Republic and Australia.
“I’ve been in probably 45 states and all over the world because of my education. I am proof that Penn College offers degrees that work,” he said.
Burton joined ITW in 2019, advancing from automation and assembly supervisor to automation engineer. Recently, he played a key role in developing the company’s automation tech team. He also serves as a mentor for new technicians.
“I like the challenge. I like the fact that I continue to learn on the job, so it’s never the same thing twice,” he said. “ITW believes in diversity and inclusion. They invest in their employees, and there are a lot of opportunities for growth. Whether this is my last stop, I don’t know.”
If not, Burton has proven he knows where and when to get off the train.
For information about Penn College’s associate and bachelor’s degrees related to electronics and other programs offered by the School of Engineering Technologies, call 570-327-4520.
Penn College is a national leader in applied technology education. Email the Admissions Office or call toll-free 800-367-9222.