Tennessee Reconnect Student Achieves as Industrial Electrician

Jessica York

Sara Wilson, industrial electrician and 2017 Outstanding Technical Student, as awarded by the American Technical Education Association, isn’t afraid to trust her gut and try something new.

That’s why she made the choice to pursue two technical diplomas at Chattanooga State Community College through the Tennessee Reconnect Grant.

“For me, the Tennessee Reconnect Grant was a catalyst that got me moving again,” Wilson says. “I was kind of stuck in this job that I didn’t want to be in and I didn’t know how to get out of it.”

The grant gives adults age 24 and above a chance to attend community college, tuition–free, at no cost to taxpayers.

“Leaving a job with no plan is really scary, but going back to school took the edge off of it. I gave something else a try, took a leap of faith and it worked out.”

Wilson now works at ATN Hölzel LP, where she creates automation cells and wires robots.

 “I love what I do. It’s fun and challenging,” she says. “Every day is something new, and overall I enjoy my job because it’s different.”

Trend: When did you first realize that you wanted to get 2 diplomas through Tennessee Reconnect?

Wilson: I was working in a job that wasn’t very fulfilling. So I was really stressed out and I was like, 'Why am I feeling this way for nothing?' And then I saw the opportunity for free tuition from the Reconnect Grant, and thought, 'Sure, why not?'

Leaving my old job was a scary gamble–but my dad always says that I land on my feet, so I knew it would work out one way or another.

Trend: How did you know that work in the electrical field was for you?

Wilson: I really knew I was fitting into my new job when we were installing an automation cell in Spartanburg, South Carolina at the BMW plant. We were working 24 hours a day, all day and all night, trying to get two cells in within two to three weeks. So we all had to bring our A-game. I was pulling my weight as much as any of the guys, and I was fixing problems that the guys weren’t fixing, and then I realized, 'Yeah, I can do this. I got this. I’m doing a good job here.'

I also get to travel. A few weeks ago I was out in California working at the Tesla plant. This summer we were at the BMW plant in South Carolina. Our company does work in Mexico and Canada, all over the place. Around Christmas I’ll be in Smyrna, Tennessee at the Nissan plant doing some work there.

Trend: What’s been your proudest accomplishment at ATN?

Wilson: That automation cell – it was so huge and complicated, and it had all these different sections and parts.

When we went to install it on site I looked over at all the lifters, robots and buttons, and I thought to myself, 'Ok, so I did that one in the shop, and I made that part, and I’m the one who wired this one…'

And then I realized that I had my hands in this entire project. I was involved in all of it. I knew that part. I knew that system. I was an expert. Once we were actually putting it in place I realized that I knew more than I thought I did, and it was such a productive feeling.

Trend: What was it like to find out two weeks into your new job at ATN that you had been named the National Outstanding Technical Student by the American Technical Education Association?

Wilson: It was great because the first two weeks of the job I felt really uncertain about myself and my skills. My very first day of work I felt like I was in way over my head. They gave me this 300 page E-plan electrical design program and said, 'Here, wire this box.'

I looked at it and just said to myself, 'Oh my god, what am I doing?' I was stumbling my way through at first. I was getting the hang of it, but not as fast as I wanted because I always want to be good at something immediately and it takes time.

So then, I got the email about the award on my phone in the shop one day, and it just felt so good. I was like, 'Yeah, I was a super star when I was in school. That’s right, I am an achiever. I can do this.' It reminded me of what I was capable of doing.

Trend: What are your hobbies outside of work?

Wilson: I love rock climbing because it’s like solving problems with your body. There’s a big mental and physical aspect to it, and I love it. Recently my husband and I have started running. I always wanted to be one of those people and we’re working on being those people.

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