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Teaching Brings Rich Rewards

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By Bonnie Darves

Jim Rett has traveled the open seas in a sailboat and backpacked his way through the South Pacific. He has made the big bucks and worked on $100 million projects. These days, he finds his excitement, challenge — and true calling, it appears — in a Portland Community College classroom.

An instructor in mechanical and civil engineering, Rett has put his own spin on the now oft-heard career philosophy "do what you love and the money will follow." Rett’s approach is more like "do what you love, even if the money will not follow."

"I’ve never worked this hard for less money and had this much fun," says Rett, a former industrial marketing manager for Pacific Power and Light who discovered his new career three years ago. Ironically, and in contrast to most people, he has set a rather unusual goal: He hopes to make half in the year 2000 teaching than what he made in 1993.

Before joining the PCC faculty, Rett had climbed the corporate ladder for two decades, only to find that the upper rungs didn’t afford a better view of the world. "It got to the point for me that it didn’t mean anything. I made lots of money, but my work wasn’t all that gratifying."

In pursuing teaching, Rett wittingly swapped money for career satisfaction. He has never regretted the move. Today, he finds joy in watching his students master the subject material, a process epitomized by what he calls "the aha moment."

"That’s the creme de la creme . . . when they break through," says Rett.

Despite the good fit, Rett says he has found that teaching is not for the faint of heart. "It’s like grabbing onto a power cord," he quips.

He chose the community college setting over a four-year institution for three reasons: He wanted to teach, not do research, and he preferred the smaller classes and broader mix of students. Since making the career switch, he has jumped in with both feet, becoming actively involved in committee work and curriculum development. And of his own initiative, he has undertaken a challenge to address an issue near and dear to his heart — bridging the gulf between industry and academia so that each sector can better serve the other.

Rett’s industry liaison project is still in its formative stage, but he expects to work with companies such as Intel, IDC, RandW Engineering and others that have expressed enthusiasm for his concepts for tailoring curriculum to industry needs. Through the connections he has made, Rett has already been successful in helping students obtain jobs.

"The previous notion is that industry doesn’t care (about academia). That’s not true. They just don’t know how to be involved. Academia needs to work more in concert with industry."

On some levels, Rett sees the project as a potential means of approximating one of his own earlier life experiences — an apprenticeship with an Ohio company that effectively launched his engineering career. Never a star student in high school (Rett laughingly notes that he graduated in the "top 95 percent" of his class), Rett admits he was a "rebel without a cause" until industry gave him a chance. Although he later went on to get an engineering degree, Rett says, "If it hadn’t been for that apprenticeship program, I wouldn’t have had a career."

Rett believes his longtime industry experience, and now his teaching, gives him an ideal perspective on issues facing both business and academia. He also maintains that a bit of "wearing the other shoe" wouldn’t hurt his former colleagues. "I believe everyone in industry should come and experience this — physically and mentally."

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