An Unmanned American Dream

by Matthew Brenden

The “American Dream” is the opportunity for prosperity and success through hard work for all. It means something different to everyone, but the principles remain the same regardless of who you are.

Solomon (Sol) Kassaye found his version of the American Dream with Northrop Grumman and Northland Community & Technical College 14 years and 7955 miles after he started the immigration process to leave Ethiopia to come to Minnesota.

Sol graduated from Northland’s first class of Unmanned Aerial Systems; the first program of its kind in America. He was hired by Northrop Grumman and is stationed in Sigonella, Italy in a position he calls a “dream come true!”

Sol was born in 1987 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (east Africa). He came from an Ethiopian middle-income family that was able to provide him with relatively good education at elementary and public high schools. At age 11, his family got the chance to come to America.

Due to the complicated immigration process, Sol was not able to get approved to come to America with the rest of his family. His mother, stepfather and two young siblings left for America and Sol was moved to his grandfather’s home until he finalized the immigration process. The process took over seven years, so at age 18 in 2006, Sol was approved to enter the United States as a permanent resident.

Sol has had a lifelong interest in aviation. In Ethiopia, there are few private aviation industries to work in and according to Sol, the Ethiopian Airlines hire only the most educated people so his chances were extremely slim to enter this workforce.

When Sol turned 16, he graduated from an Ethiopian high school. He was able to work in an automotive shop that trained young people as long as the kids provide free assistant service for the lead mechanic. He was able to learn many things in this job. According to Sol, “Even though I was not paid anything, the education I got from there helped me shape my future. I was able to learn that I enjoyed the challenge of troubleshooting, fixing, and the feeling of accomplishment you get from the job.”

Sol added, “From that point on I decided I was going to be a technician because of the feeling of joy I got from the job. I learned that you don’t need much money in life to be happy, as long as you get satisfaction from your job.” He found a trade he was passionate about, but the dream of working in aviation was ever-present.

On May 15, 2006, Sol arrived in Minneapolis, Minnesota to finally be reunited with his family. Sol planned to work low wage jobs, but his parents insisted he go to school. He followed their advice and went back to high school as an 11th grade student. This decision proved extremely beneficial as he improved his English and it helped him to better understand life in Minnesota.

Sol also participated in Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) where he took several college-level classes. He attended automotive courses in college and high school side by side. He added, “The automotive experience in college gave me an idea about the industry and the job. My experience taught me that the automotive industry is good and interesting, but very competitive and it lacks much of the challenge the aviation industry offers. This helped me decide to change to an aviation major when I headed to college.”

After high school, Sol attended Minneapolis Community & Technical College where he took the prerequisites for the aviation program. During this time their aviation program was cancelled so Sol took his life north to Northland Community & Technical College’s Aviation Maintenance Technology (AMT) program in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. Sol found the school and the program a natural fit for him. He said it was everything he hoped it would be – challenging, interesting, and difficult. His favorite parts of the AMT program were working with composites, jet engines, powerplants and airframes.

During his time in the AMT program, Sol saw himself graduating and working for an airline. It was also during this time that Northland was developing the first Unmanned Aerial Systems program in the country. His instructors introduced Sol to this cutting-edge program and what it could lead to.

“To be honest, I was as skeptical as most students on spending another year in school and the prospects of getting a job working on Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), because there were no commercial Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV).” Sol decided it would be advantageous to try the program because of the classes in avionics, composites, and electronics.

Sol enrolled in the UAS program and immediately found it a great fit. He said of the 30-credit program, “It really covered everything and prepared me for what is out there in the job market right now, and I am very grateful for that.”

As he went through the UAS program, he received encouragement and support from Northland Community & Technical College and Northrop Grumman.

“I kept getting encouragement from Northrop Grumman management,” said Sol. “That encouragement played a huge role in keeping me in the program during difficult days.”

As graduation neared, Sol felt confident in his skills and was ready to begin the next chapter.

“The Northland staff was a huge help as I prepared to graduate and enter the workforce,” said Sol. “Jon Beck really helped me get to where I am,” he stressed. Sol was ready for new challenges and he set his sights on working for a leader in unmanned aerial systems, Northrop Grumman.

Northrop Grumman and Northland Community & Technical College have a history of partnership and collaboration. Northrop Grumman has been a key partner throughout the growth of Northland Aerospace.

“Northrop Grumman is a leader in unmanned systems,” said Janis Pamiljans, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems sector vice president and general manager for Unmanned Systems. “In order to maintain that leadership, we need to grow the men and women who will design, operate, manage and lead the unmanned capabilities of tomorrow. That’s why it’s critically important that we partner with organizations like Northland Community & Technical College.”

Northrop Grumman is a leading global security company that provides innovative systems, products and solutions in aerospace, electronics, information systems, and technical services to government and commercial customers worldwide.

“Northrop Grumman has been a strong ally in the development of this program from the beginning, and we are so thankful for their continued support and for hiring our graduates,” said former chief development officer at Northland, Dan Klug. “Northland and our entire aerospace programs are grateful and excited by Sol’s hiring.”

Upon graduation, Sol received promising word on getting a job at Northrop Grumman from Sean Callahan of Northrop Grumman. He had high hopes of this and prepared himself to take full advantage of this amazing opportunity. Sol started his internship with Northrop Grumman at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.

“It has been the most interesting and unique experience of my life,” said Sol. “The company has a wonderful and friendly work environment, which is built on providing quality service to its customers and I am proud to be a part of it.”

Sol was upgraded to a full-time employee and had planned to be assigned to a full-time permanent position in Guam upon completion of his internship. While stationed in Sigonella, Italy as a technician/mechanic, Sol spoke about his position and said, “This is where everything is happening! Aircraft are flying, and I’m learning so much every day from greasing aircraft to working on required sensitive equipment.

According to Bruce Jinneman, Northrop Grumman Technical Services RQ-4 enterprise manager, Northrop Grumman currently employs three Northland graduates and hopes to hire more in the future.

“Northrop Grumman has no internal school house to produce UAS technicians,” said Jinneman. “As the UAS business continues to grow, we now have a source in Northland for producing technicians to support a variety of UAS. Northland graduates have FAA certified airframe and powerplant certificates, are trained not only in UAS mechanical systems, such as hydraulics, brakes and engines, but also have experience in UAS avionics systems.”

Sol is proof that hard work and dedication are crucial to finding the American dream. He overcame obstacles many couldn’t fathom, and continually spoke not of himself, but in how others helped him along the way.

“The staff at Northland were amazing…everything they did was for me,” said Sol. I got this job because of Northland. It’s a dream come true for someone like me to have a career like this.”

For additional information about Northland Community & Technical College, contact Jonathan Beck at 1-800-959-6282 or via email at Jonathan.Beck@northlandcollege.edu (www.northlandaerospace.com).

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