The Heart of a Tinkerer: UACCM Grad Finds Her Passion Around Machines

 

Woman stands in front of wooden paneled wall
Sidney Ball found her passion for fixing machines at UACCM. (Photo taken February 2020)

Sidney Ball refuses to leave a problem unsolved.

A graduate from the UACCM Industrial Mechanics and Maintenance Technology (IMMT) program, she studied how to install and repair high-tech machinery. She puts her skill to work at a Tyson Foods plant in Clarksville, Arkansas, where production lines are dependent on her conducting preventative maintenance.

At first glance, joining the field seemed unlikely for someone who had no experience in an industrial environment.

“I was always fascinated with fixing things, so I knew that maintenance was right for me,” she said.

 

The tinkerer who almost wasn’t: the IMMT graduate finds her ambition

Like many young people, she took time to settle on her academic and career goals. Uncontrollable circumstances also interfered. She attended Arkansas Tech University immediately after high school to pursue nursing, when a surgery forced her to take off a semester. Her enthusiasm to return to college waned, and she went to work at the Arkansas Nuclear One (ANO) power plant, often going on the road to respond to outages.

She admits that she applied at ANO mostly because of the opening. Most of her work consisted of rigging machinery used to repair power equipment, but she relished the field enough to decide on a career in industrial maintenance. After working for the plant for three years, she knew she needed to go back to school to get more training and education.

As she studied colleges in the area, a friend attending UACCM’s registered nursing program tried to convince her to finish her nursing degree. Sidney quickly turned her down, but exposure to the college guided her to IMMT. Graduates of the program perform multi-craft maintenance on technology in manufacturing and industry. Like all machines, equipment eventually needs to be repaired or upgraded after constant use, which requires highly-skilled technicians. 

“I knew that this was where I needed to be,” she said. “It just felt right.”

Ball earned an Associate of Applied Science in IMMT

The more that she read about IMMT, the more she got excited about what she’d learned. She took a foundational welding course, a class that IMMT students enroll in to complete their program. She welded a couple of times in a high school agriculture class and wanted to learn more about how to weld better. She dove into a fundamentals of electricity class and found its practical uses, envisioning the ability to install an outlet or replace a light switch herself.

Joining the program meant hard work. Her job at the power plant did not complement the subject matter in IMMT, she said, and many of the peers in the program had at least some experience in the field.

“I doubted myself sometimes, but then something clicked when I started doing the work,” she said.

During her first days and weeks of classes, she found support that helped her understand new concepts about how machinery worked.

 

Faculty mentor and learning the field

Faculty members serve as mentors as well, which she credited as a big factor in her decision to enroll at UACCM.  

In class, Ball learned the skills she had been craving. Students work off descriptions or a 2D print of a motor’s schematic, and they replicate the process on trainers. The result: a working system that runs on electricity, which is operated by a circuit to allow an operator to safely turn the machine on or off. But the process did not come naturally to her.

“That was the hardest class that I ever took. I did not understand how to wire a motor just by looking at lines and symbols on a page,” she said. “I didn’t quite get it until the end of the semester. You learn it a piece at a time.”

She owed it to one of her instructors, Brian Lum, who encouraged her and took time with her in class.

He never minded to go over a lesson again, she remembered. “He would always go back over with me and others until we understood. You could tell that all of us getting it mattered to him,” she said.

 

From the classroom to the workforce

Ball now works at Tyson Foods in Clarksville, where she performs maintenance on various machines throughout the facility. She has an area that she oversees.  In addition to conveyors that move product around, she works on air compressors that supply fresh air into the plant. She began her career after a brief stint as a machinist at Con Agra, and started at Tyson—while seven months pregnant—and ready to learn about new technology.

“Nothing can prepare you for what the real world is like, but the IMMT classes were close to it,” she said. “The classes prepared me on the electronics, hydraulics, and motor parts of my job.”

She works during evening shifts. On a typical day, she conducts maintenance on the air compressors, a critical element to running the plant, as the production lines run off air. Air lines run through the facility, including the air that moves conveyor belts.

She goes about her job with contagious joy and gratitude to Tyson for training her on new equipment. It’s a field still dominated by men, she said, but she believes that it’s an area where anyone can do it if they work hard and have the interest.

“I was the only female IMMT student, but it never bothered me,” she said. “But women should go into this to be passionate. If women have a drive to fix things, play an important role at a plant, and want to alter machines to be a certain way, this is a great career.”

Ultimately, she finds purpose in her work. “When the line is running, sometimes things go down. I fix it, and people are grateful for that,” she said. “It’s anything but a thankless job.”

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