Nontraditional path leads alumnus towards passion for math and career success

Harlan Archer, center, discusses improvements with others to a mine impound.

Nontraditional path leads alumnus towards passion for math and career success

F irst-generation college student and Milledgeville native, Harlan Archer, ’89, ’09, didn’t know what it felt like to play frisbee on Front Campus or be a part of a fraternity during his time at Georgia College. He was too busy working and studying to put himself through school—something he later wouldn’t want his kids to endure. And, they didn’t. 

Harlan Archer
Harlan Archer

From front-line worker to president, Archer worked his way up the industry ladder, managing to put all seven of his children through college, where they savored the full university experience. 

Studying and working full-time, evening shifts at Northrup Grumman Corporation took all his time. After seven years of this rigorous schedule, he earned his undergraduate degree in math, then went on to earn his master’s in business administration.

“When I started working at Grumman right out of high school, it was pretty obvious to me that I needed an education,” said Archer. “And because I didn't have one, I was working evening shift, or 4 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Thank goodness Georgia College was available for me.” 

Despite his hectic work schedule, averaging 40-plus hours per week, he enrolled as a nontraditional student, taking two classes per quarter. He recalls studying in the library before work and watching students take part in leisure activities on Front Campus, wishing he could do that, as well. 

“I always used to tell myself, ‘If I ever get out of college, and I get a decent job, my kids will not go to college the same way I did,’” he said. “So, I was able to make that happen.”

Today, there are two pharmacists, a doctorate in chemical engineering, a geology major, English major, geology major and a master's in math in his family. Their last child is in college. 

Harlan Archer (first row-center) and his employees who received Georgia Mining Association awards.
Harlan Archer (first row-center) and his employees who received Georgia Mining Association awards.

When he started working at Grumman, he quickly saw that engineers had good jobs. So, he wanted to be an engineer or mechanical engineer. Since the fourth grade, Archer knew he was good at math and enjoyed solving problems, making A’s throughout high school. At Georgia College, he took classes with Dr. David DeVries, who was a professor and chair of the math department at that time. Archer was one of seven out of 25 Calculus II students to advance to Calculus III.  

“He really upped our game in the math department,” he said. “I’ve never been so proud of a C in my entire life. I figured if I could get through that class, I can get through any of these math courses.”

Archer learned if he worked hard enough, he could persevere. So, he did. He started off in an entry level job out of college in a local kaolin company, ultimately becoming president. Even though the kaolin company changed names three times, Archer never left. He attributes his math background for his success.

“Math, in general—at a kaolin plant, or any big plant—is much needed since a plant is just a huge optimization process,” he said. “You've got all of these products and product lines that must be optimized for quality and cost. And, the first thing that I did when I got into the Kaolin industry was statistical process control.”

In his position, he crunched data, analyzed processes, measured controls and assisted in minimizing quality measurement errors. 

Later in his career, he used math and statistics to solve a major problem at the company’s ground calcium carbonate plant in Maryland. There he met with a scientist from England, who worked with processes, and Archer did the data analyzation. Together, they solved the problem.

“We figured it out using multiple linear regression and correlation analysis,” he said. “I can give so many examples where I used math in my career. It's unbelievable. I had no idea when I got a math degree, that it was a great field. It gave me the background and the training to sit back and solve problems.” 

“Math is a great degree. I had no idea that when I was getting my degree that it was really a good fit for an industry. Industry needs more people who have problem-solving abilities. I wish more people would understand that.”
– Harlan Archer

As Archer moved up in his career, he discovered he needed to learn about operations, management, marketing, business law and human resources. 

As company president, Archer supervised 500 employees. He had more duties, one of which was analyzing the data and making decisions that would keep his world-wide customers from running out of product. 

“When I was a production manager, I was always answering questions,” he said. ‘Can you make a certain amount of product by a certain time frame with a multitude of constraints?’ A lot of different things factored in. So, I made a huge model in Excel with components that all work together, and this model greatly assisted of answering questions regarding capacity plus helped optimize the processes.”

Although Archer’s traveled all over the world for the company that ships to 60 countries, he also spent a lot of time in the plant, doing math and making friends. 

“There are lots of different people in the industry,” he said. “It's been a very rewarding career.”

Archer retired in 2020, after working 30 years in the kaolin industry. Now, he serves on the College of Arts and Sciences Advisory Board and has pursued his other dream of living on their farm. Archer and his wife, Lori Wiggins Archer, who is a Sandersville native, are thoroughly enjoying their new life on the farm.

He reflects on the tenets of his career, one of which is for individuals to stay humble and lead by example.

“What many students need to remember when they get out is just because they have a college degree doesn't mean that they're the smartest people in the room,” Archer said. “Each employee may not know the science behind their task, but they know what happens when they do their tasks.” 

In Brazil, Harlan Archer (center) discusses improvements to a mine impound.
In Brazil, Harlan Archer (center) discusses improvements to a mine impound.

He also believes in treating people with dignity and respect. 

“Just be honest and work hard and have some fun along the way,” said Archer. “Laugh. If you’re going to have memories, you might as well have some good ones.”

Archer is grateful for his Georgia College education. He offers a scholarship to a rising junior math major with the highest grade-point average.

“Math is a great degree,” he said. “I had no idea that when I was getting my degree that it was really a good fit for an industry. Industry needs more people who have problem-solving abilities. I wish more people would understand that.”

To learn how you can help provide aid to Georgia College math students, like Archer did, contact Bob Preston at bob.preston@gcsu.edu.