A look around Vanair Manufacturing Inc., in Michigan City may appear to be a meeting of Purdue University North Central College of Engineering and Technology alumni.
Vanair designs, builds and markets a complete line of truck-mounted mobile power products used by a variety of industries. Its products are used worldwide, including those purchased by the U.S. Department of Defense for use by troops deployed overseas.
The company employs about 120 people and about 12 of those employees – 10 percent of its workforce – earned their Bachelor’s degrees in Mechanical Engineering Technology at Purdue North Central. In addition, Vanair has PNC alumni in its accounting and marketing departments and has two PNC interns.
Vanair CEO Ralph Kokot couldn’t be happier with the PNC alumni he has on staff.
“PNC students come to us with a tremendous amount of practical knowledge,” said Kokot. “They are enthusiastic, they have great ideas and they know how to get things done.”
Kokot and his brother Greg, Vanair president, have owned the company since 1997. As recently as five years ago the company had just 37 employees. At a time when other companies were contracting, Vanair was growing at a remarkable rate.
The Vanair and PNC relationship was solidified as a result of a conversation between Greg Kokot and Ed Vavrek, PNC associate professor of Mechanical Engineering Technology. The men knew one another back in school and Greg felt comfortable asking Vavrek to recommend some “cream of the crop” students to work as interns. If all went well, there was the possibility of full-time employment.
“This presents an ideal opportunity for our students,” said Dr. Thomas Brady, dean of the College of Engineering and Technology. “It’s great for them to have this opportunity to move from student to professional.”
The Vanair facility is located just a few miles from PNC and the PNC alumni appreciate that they are able to stay in their home communities.
Ralph Kokot noted that he is happy to see the PNC alumni settle in to their jobs and become active members of the community as they buy homes, start families and do volunteer work.
“Our jobs give us a lot of creative freedom,” said Garrett Griggs, a 2011 PNC graduate. “We are able to design and build a machine, test it and see it work.”
“We have a diverse group,” said Dan Ramirez, a 2008 graduate. “We match our skills and interests with the job to be done. I really enjoy it.”
Ramirez noted that Vanair is committed to helping veterans and is actively involved with The Warriors First Foundation. On Fridays employees are often seen wearing the organization’s red t-shirts or dress in red to show their support.
Some of the PNC alumni at Vanair credit Ramirez with breaking the ice for them to follow him to the company.
Todd Zeigner, a 2008 graduate, credited his PNC classes with preparing him for what he would see on the job. Vanair uses the same CAD system that he learned at PNC and was able to step in and get to work on day one.
The more seasoned Vanair engineers are willing to mentor the new comers, while the recent graduates share their knowledge of new trends in the field, added Jayson Maas, a 2012 graduate.
Intern Casey Wallington, who will graduate in May, is already a key part of the team.
The group has an easy camaraderie that allows them to work together to trade ideas.
“Sometimes we’ll look at something and one of us will say, ‘I remember this from class,’ ” said James Molton, another 2012 graduate. “It’s great that we have a common knowledge to use on the job.”
David Rausch earned his degree in Electrical Engineering Technology at the Purdue West Lafayette campus. He and several of the PNC alums kept a variety of books from class that they refer to on the job.
“It never ceases to amaze me the skill sets these engineers bring to the job,” said Kokot.
The engineers are often asked to create new products or to improve existing ones. Sometimes a customer asks for a special adaptation specific to a need.
“That’s why I love my job,” said Ramirez. “Every day is a new challenge.”
Vanair is still growing, said Kokot, and these engineers are a vital part of the company’s future.
The PNC alumni take great pride in what they do. “It’s amazing to see a truck on the road carrying Vanair equipment,” said Griggs. “I want it to work each and every time it’s used. I’m proud of what I do.”