Cathie Anderson: Mechanical teacher has many busy grads

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 - 3:10 pm

Michael Halbern prepares students at Sierra College for careers in the greasy, grimy world of locomotive propulsion, the clean rooms of a wafer fabrication facility and the hive of backstage activity at a Cirque du Soleil show.

Halbern's students have been known to land positions even before they finish degrees. Salaries start between $40,000 and $80,000.

Still, when Halbern faces the age-old icebreaker question – "What do you do for a living?" – he gets a blank stare when he responds, "I teach mechatronics."

He quickly fills in the blank: "You know it as robotics, industrial automation, process control."

Mechatronics integrates four disciplines, Halbern says: electronics, computer controls, mechanical systems, and fluid power such as pneumatics.

Sierra's program is one of only about 10 in the nation, Halbern says, and it stands virtually alone when it comes to placing students in such a range of industries.

They can work on machines that build wafers, on the equipment that puts a ring just within an acrobat's grasp, on locomotive controls, ski lifts, automobiles, traffic lights, ATMs, escalators, elevators, self-checkout kiosks, gas pumps … and Halbern could go on.

"It's just everywhere," he says. "Most people don't give it a thought until it stops working."

Most community colleges offer degrees in the separate disciplines, Halbern says, but then companies must invest millions of dollars to bring new hires up to speed.

"As I look around the United States," he says, "and I see electronics technology programs like I used to teach here at Sierra College that are floundering because there's a disconnect between the skills they teach and the jobs that students ultimately vie for, I wonder, 'How can instructors look in the mirror and keep teaching things that don't match?' "

The change at Sierra required a $1 million investment in equipment, a forward-thinking administration and faculty willing to change. This combination isn't all that common in education, Halbern said. Sierra's main campus in Rocklin routinely has more applicants than it has open spots, but students who can get to the campus in Truckee will find room.

Party Central at H & 16th

Tech entrepreneur Brett Owens has plenty of reasons to party. One would be that his 5-year-old Sacramento startup, Chrometa, started turning a profit in October, earning enough to start paying salaries and to buy a car last weekend for company business.

You may recall that Chrometa is the software program that tracks every second of work for attorneys, freelance graphic artists and others who have billable hours. After keywords and phone numbers are assigned, Chrometa compiles invoices.

The number of Chrometa users has grown by 15 percent to 20 percent to about 24,000 since Owens talked to me in July. Some of those users asked Owens if they could refer business associates to Chrometa and get paid if the leads panned out. He liked the idea but couldn't find the right software to track sales referrals.

Eventually, Owens teamed up with local tech gurus Carson Gross and Mike Machado, and they created software of their own,, and spun it off as a startup. LeadDyno tracks sales from any third party, whether it's a website or an individual.

"If someone sends you a link and they say, 'Hey, Cathie, check out Chrometa. I use it to track my time and I find it useful,' they basically have a unique link that lets us know Cathie came through them," Owens said.

Owens, Gross and Machado will celebrate the launch of LeadDyno with a Feb. 28 party at the dual Chrometa-LeadDyno HQ at 1600 H St. …

Former Tower Records executive Stan Goman sold his interest in the Elkhorn Saloon at 18398 Old River Road in West Sacramento to partners Skip and Rose Kittle back in November. "Stan just decided he wasn't made for the restaurant business," Skip Kittle said, noting that the long hours aren't for everyone. Kittle and his wife are restaurant industry veterans with experience at Skittles Bar & Grill, Rosie's Rock & Docks and The Westside Pub and Grill.

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