UMSL graduate Rob Jones gets a boost from the Joint Engineering Program to build a business of his own

Rob Jones

Mechanical engineering graduate Rob Jones climbed to the position of president and owner of John Harder & Company, a custom forklift attachment business. (Photo by August Jennewein)

University of Missouri–St. Louis graduate and St. Louis business owner Rob Jones said it took a lot of determination to buy the company he helped build as an employee – and to earn a mechanical engineering degree while he was building it. 

“Pursuing a technical field like that while working full time is extremely difficult,” Jones said. “If you want to do that, you probably shouldn’t have a job that taxes your mind all day long and then try to take classes at night. It is the nontraditional way. But if you fight hard enough and want it, you can do it.

Jones has been the president and owner of John Harder & Company, a custom forklift attachment business, since 2019. He started working at the company right out of high school in 1987 as a laborer. While working there full time in a variety of roles over the years, Jones took weekend and evening classes in the UMSL/Washington University in St. Louis Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program to earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2012.

Before enrolling at UMSL, Jones had considered other engineering programs, but he had been told there was no way he could work full time and manage those programs.

“I couldn’t quit my job,” Jones said. “So the option to be in the JEP, that option gave me the possibility to pursue my career path.” 

The Joint Engineering Program is a partnership between UMSL and Washington University that offers an affordable and convenient option for non-traditional students by providing weekend and evening classes. JEP students complete two years of study on the UMSL campus before transitioning to the Washington University campus to complete upper-level engineering classes.

Jones said that the staff and faculty at the JEP became like family while he was working toward his degree part-time for more than a decade. Jones said he was especially challenged during his last years because of divorce and the illness and subsequent death of his sister. But he said the support of Mary McManus, associate director of advising & student services, helped him keep his focus.

“It literally took me nearly 12 years of fighting, scratching, kicking and clawing through classes,” he said. “”Part of that was with Mary setting the table all those years, guiding me through. Just knowing that she knew that I was on that path, it was like I had another commitment to finishing knowing that Mary was pulling for me too.”

That path eventually led to ownership of John Harder & Company, a Wellston-based company with 14 employees that customizes forklift attachments for industrial use. Jones was able to apply the engineering knowledge he learned at UMSL to develop innovative techniques needed by companies across the United States. For instance, Jones’ company recently developed a method for an Arizona company that enables a specialized forklift attachment to flip 8,000-pound blocks of concrete that previously took three to four workers up to three hours to flip.

“Our challenge was to design it to meet loading requirements but still yield a return on the customer’s investment, and we were able to achieve a flip with one operator in less than ten minutes,” Jones said.

Jones’ current business acumen is a bit of a stretch from his rock ’n’ roll roots. Jones is a musician and singer in the band Red Wine Sunday, performing in St. Louis venues and recently making a recording and video. Before attending UMSL, Jones was torn between studying music or engineering. But it was familial ties that got Jones into business and the engineering profession.

Jones, who grew up a “a bike ride away” from the UMSL campus, was given a chance through his stepfather in landing his first job at the company he now owns. That first job was shoveling steel chips. Jones’ dad was in the U.S. Army’s 555th Engineering Brigade” Triple Nickel,” his uncle received an engineering degree from Washington University, his grandfather was an engineer who worked at McDonnell Douglas and his great-grandfather owned a south St. Louis manufacturing business, Doerr Motor Works, “years and years ago,” Jones said.

While Jones embraces his engineering roots, he says now it’s up to him to take what he’s received from his family and his educational experience at UMSL and to grow and build the business that he is responsible for. 

“I got intimate with operations in all areas,” he said of his career at John Harder. “And all of those years had me thinking of ways to improve and do things better, thinking we could grow. All of those things across all of those years have built into me the dream, the desire to do better and grow and just see if maybe we could improve upon the foundation we have here. Now it’s up to me to put things into action.”

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