Educator in the Workforce attendees again told many solid career paths can be created without college degrees

It would be extreme to call it a sea change, but there’s undoubtedly a shift in thinking about whether college should be the K-12 goal for all, or even most, students. The reasons hit home for Debbie Reynolds, a Science teacher from Baldwin Whitehall School District, when she visited Covestro as a participant in our Educator in the Workforce program. 

“There are so many really good opportunities where it’s not needed and there are kids who just don’t want to go,” she said.

Social pressures often lead students who should consider other pathways to seek degrees, only to drop out, often with debt, Reynolds added. “My own son is one of them.”

Covestro, a leading maker of high-tech polymers, was the third and latest in a series of immersion experiences we’ve offered this fall through Educator in the Workforce. Previous sessions—one held in partnership with Mascaro Construction and another at NEP Group, the nation’s largest provider of broadcast production services—also challenged what’s long been conventional wisdom on college.

While all three have lots of opportunities for college graduates, what struck many educators during the immersion sessions was how many opportunities each also offers for applicants without four year degrees.

At Covestro’s North American headquarters and primary R&D facility in Robinson, for example, the company hires most chemical lab techs with certificates or associates degrees. It also recruits candidates for many jobs who have accrued experience that supplants the need for an academic credential.

Sometimes, in the company’s labs where technicians need not only to understand chemistry, but also repair or reconfigure bench-scale production equipment, the company is looking as much for people who “are good with their hands, like someone who works on their own car” as it is for chemistry students, said Jack Reese, Director of Process Research in the polyurethane laboratory. “We can teach some of the chemistry, we can’t teach manual dexterity.”

Similarly, at NEP, Chief Engineer Dan Turk said the company isn’t so much looking for degrees as it is for “what people have done.” If they’ve thrown themselves into technology as a hobby or have other related experience, it’s a big plus for pursuing technical jobs with the company. Additionally, NEP looks for problem-solvers. Applicants interested in production don’t need to be math whizzes, but they need to have “an engineering mindset,” Turk said.

What’s more, all three companies that have participated so far in Educator in the Workforce said that even without degrees, most entry-level employees will find opportunities to advance.

“Almost all jobs at Covestro offer career paths,” Senior Talent Acquisition Specialist Wilmus told attendees at her company’s session.She noted there’s an employee currently heading one of the company’s business units who started as an administrative assistant. Wilmus also said that the company offers tuition reimbursement to employees who want to build more knowledge for their jobs, or get degrees that will help them advance within the company.

Like other companies that have participated in Educator in the Workforce, Covestro is facing the hiring challenges that come with an aging workforce. Over the next 10 years, the headquarters and lab will lose 300 to retirement, more than a third of their current staff, said STEM Coordinator Ben Renwick, who promotes STEM careers for Covestro.

All three hosts for Educator in the Workforce have said many of the jobs where hiring shortages already are occurring are skilled trades, from welding to carpentry.

Like NEP and Mascaro, Covestro also is looking for skills that college degrees can’t guarantee.

“The top skills gap is in soft skills,” Wilmus said, noting the company screens for communications and other soft skills in a variety of ways, including behavioral testing in which job applicants are asked how they would handle different problems in different scenarios.

“It’s also not unusual for Covestro to ask applicants to present a Power Point,” on why they want the jobs they’re seeking and what makes them good candidates, Wilmus added.

Such details about the hiring process that educators learned from Covestro and other employers are important, said Christy Chicklo, Special Education Coordinator in South Allegheny School District.  “It’s been great for me to be able to come here and learn what skills the kids need so that I can help them.