After 20 years working in construction sales, and given the state of Florida's construction industry, Chris Altadonna knew he had to make a career move.
He had paid off his mortgage, so a year-and-a-half ago he and his wife decided it was time for him to get an education.
"It's never too late," said Altadonna, 44.
So he enrolled in the engineering technology program at Hillsborough Community College in Brandon, a program that is helping prepare its students for careers in the ever-evolving field of manufacturing.
"I've always enjoyed tearing things apart and putting them back together," Altadonna said.
He is one of about 60 students in the HCC program, which has grown from just two students when it was started four years ago.
"They need manufacturers," said Alessandro Anzalone, director of the program. "All our partners need people. We can't graduate students fast enough."
Altadonna will graduate with his two-year degree in December and already has a job lined up with Adam's Air and Hydraulics in Tampa. The company has committed to helping him pay to get his four-year degree from Daytona State College.
As the manufacturing industry evolves, the jobs are becoming more technical, Anzalone said. And as the current generation of workers retire, companies are looking for skilled technicians to fill the open positions.
Florida doesn't have the same manufacturing base as states like Michigan, but there are plenty of opportunities for technicians at smaller companies, Anzalone said.
"There are a lot of those in Florida," he said. "The challenge is finding them."
So far, each of the program's four graduates have jobs. And technicians on average earn at least $20 an hour, Anzalone said.
Anzalone, who has a doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of South Florida, teaches his students how each machine and software program works so they can work with different models and types of equipment anywhere.
"My idea here is to try and get it in their heads so they can connect all the dots," he said.
As technicians, the students will help fill a labor gap in the manufacturing industry left open by engineers. Advanced engineers design the machinery and the products, but manufacturers need skilled workers to actually work the equipment.
"So students are going to come out with a skill that employers are looking for today," Anzalone said.
The HCC program is one of 13 across Florida, all coordinated by the Florida Advanced Technological Center (FLATE), which is funded by the National Science Foundation.
When finished, students in the two-year and certificate programs can apply for the four-year, online engineering technology degree through Daytona State College.
Many of the students in the program are veterans, former construction workers or technicians that are formalizing their training.
About 90 percent of them already work full-time, Anzalone said, so he is trying to schedule the classes later in the day next semester.
The classes are designed to be hands-on, he said. He prepares lectures to outline safety procedures and basic principles, but other than that, Anzalone wants his students to learn by doing.
"But they need to read a lot," he said.
Byron Taylor, 48, will also graduate in December and plans to go on to the four-year program while his wife completes her doctorate in nursing.
He almost didn't go back to school at all, he said, because he was worried he wouldn't be able to take time off from his job at the power plant of James A. Haley VA Medical Center.
But his bosses gave him some time off, and now his new degree will open a whole new world of opportunities for him.
And he'll be able to set an example for his two children.
"It's going to help me move up by getting an education," Taylor said.