Where degrees aren’t needed to find opportunity

Dwayne Weber, a welder at Case Window and Door. (Photo by Donna Abbott-Vlahos)

Dwayne Weber crafts windows to outfit the mountain view estates and luxury hotels of the world’s richest 1 percent. His employer gives him weeks of paid time off, a 401(k) and health insurance.

“It’s all the good things I’ve been looking for in a job,” he says.

Weber also has no formal education beyond high school related to his current career. It took him a while to get there, but Weber is one of many high school graduates rediscovering what was once common but today is seemingly unthinkable: he can work his way into a rewarding career without a four-year college degree.

That population is emerging as more of a viable workforce in a state with a tight labor pool nearing full employment. Their success belies the popular notion that employers should avoid candidates without degrees.

In the 11-county Albany region, an average 23 percent of high school graduates across all school districts don’t go to college. That leaves a substantial young workforce, marked more by stereotypes than credentials, hunting for jobs. Hiring managers are often just as desperate for employees as the graduates are for work. In manufacturing and trades especially, businesses are grasping for a new labor pool.

The unemployment rate for high school graduates with no college – 6.2 percent – is more than double the rate for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher in the Albany-Troy-Schenectady metropolitan area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

If these high school graduates search in the right places, they’ll find hiring managers eager to train them in well-paying jobs that can turn into careers with benefits. If they don’t, they’re projected to earn $1.7 million less over their lifetime than those with a bachelor’s degree, and still more than $400,000 less than those with an associate degree.

Weber struggled to find fulfilling work in his native Pennsylvania without finishing a four-year degree. Years later, he would stumble upon the job he always wanted in an unlikely place: Green Island, in a region dubbed “Tech Valley” where careers abound for coders coming out of four-year colleges.

Weber always had a knack for making things with his hands. In high school metal shop, he stood out among his classmates. But Weber sidelined his welding skills to pursue a college degree in art education, which he never completed.

A different kind of career opportunity for workers without degrees lay within the walls of Case Window and Door on Route 787. It was just minutes from Weber’s new home, but camouflaged by a wooded waterfront campus and an outdated stigma against manufacturing work.

Soon after Weber entered through Case’s glass-walled lobby and got a job, he went from sweeping floors to welding windows for multimillion-dollar contracts.

“What we look for is people who want to learn a trade or craft. And I have very little interest in degrees,” said Russ Brooks, co-owner of Case Window.

Eric Larson handles hiring at the window and door manufacturer. He said he considers almost anyone who applies – provided they have the right attitude, and at least a high school diploma.

“If you’re a solid individual and you have intellect, that’s really what [I] want to look for,” Larson said. “Somebody that’s got the spark in their eye, they’re motivated, they want to do something. That’s the first thing you want to look for.”

Experience? College education? Training? Not priorities for Larson.

“We have to train everybody,” Larson said, because the work at Case is so different from anything else in manufacturing. “So it’s not necessarily a negative for us as an employer, and it’s a positive for the employee because they have a career path,” he said.

A new hire without a degree or experience – though they might start out shoveling snow and cleaning toilets, rather than building windows – is potentially just as promising as a seasoned woodworker.

Weber earned a two-year culinary degree after dropping out of the art education program, but he didn’t see a career path in the food industry.

“You’re in there 14 hours a day, working nonstop, living on cigarettes and alcohol, and they’re paying you $9, $10 an hour,” he said.

When he started at Case, he cleaned machines and emptied garbage bins in the factory. In his spare time, he would talk to craftsmen and learn about the tools. Coworkers taught him how to weld and build frames. Now Weber has moved on from maintenance and works entirely on the factory floor. The two maintenance hires after him have both followed the same path into the metal shop.

Larson’s own experience – dropping out of college and switching between a few careers before settling at Case – echoes that of most people he hires. He completed his diploma at Colonie Central High School, but not his degree at SUNY Maritime College. He worked rehabbing boats in New York City, then switched to music retailing and eventually ran his own studio doing contract work for record labels.

Twelve years in New York City went by before Larson felt the pull to move back to the Capital Region. His dad wanted him to flip his grandmother’s old house after she died. Seeking part- time work in the meantime, Larson ended up at Case and never left.

He’s been there now for more than 13 years. In his office, remnants of his past career linger: a professional microphone reaches around his computer monitor, and he’ll occasionally record music in his free time.

Larson said he also spends a lot of time helping employees with basic life skills – new hires at Case are not only learning how to craft windows and doors.

“There’s days I feel more of a counselor than a boss,” he said.

Counseling his workers through these issues – whether dealing with a landlord or a family problem – stabilizes their personal life, which in turn shores up their work life.

“If both start failing, something’s gonna break, and it’s usually the work relationship that breaks first,” he said.

Bridging the gap

Personal obstacles can trip up these workers even in their best efforts to find and stay in a job. Those challenges tend to be even steeper for high school dropouts than for graduates without college. Often, they mirror the forces that pushed them out of high school.

Seven of 11 counties in the Albany region record high school dropout rates higher than the state average of 6 percent, according to the New York State Education Department.

Nicholas Larkins, who works at Schenectady High School in a position focused on increasing attendance, said challenging home lives are a big factor for struggling students.

“A lot of these kids end up raising their family. The have to be responsible for making sure mom gets her meds,” he said, “making sure their little sisters and brothers get to school.”

In Schenectady County, only 75 percent of students graduated in four years in 2017, while nine percent dropped out and the rest were held back.

Larkins also points to the communities where some of his students live: they can look around, see few peers with diplomas and degrees, and internalize low expectations.

“I’m a firm believer that college isn’t for everyone,” Larkins said. “I’m also a firm believer that high school is for everybody.” 

Jennifer Lawrence, founder and executive director of the Social Enterprise and Training Center, or SEAT, in Schenectady, said one of the biggest challenges for these students is a disconnect from business and higher education communities.

“A lot of our young people, they’ve lost hope. They don’t think there are any opportunities for them to get connected,” Lawrence said.

High school dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested than high school graduates, nearly twice as likely to have heart disease or diabetes in their lifetime, and nearly four times as likely to rely on government assistance.

If Lawrence can get those students into her program – by knocking on doors and recruiting at neighborhood hangouts or corner stores – she can train them and introduce them to employers.

The unemployment rate for dropouts locally – 14.7 percent – is more than double the unemployment rate of high school graduates or equivalency diploma holders, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“From an economic development point of view, from an employer point of view, the people we work with have to be engaged,” Lawrence said. “Because this is the pool. We have to invest in this group of young people.”

Mohawk Ambulance is one of the employers that partners with SEAT to recruit potential EMTs, a workforce they struggle to fill.

“It provides another stream of employee candidates that we probably would not be able to get to,” said Dan Gilmore, director of operations at Mohawk.

The business offers a free, four-month training that’s open to the community, and draws everyone from college students to people looking for a career change, in addition to high school dropouts at SEAT.

“At the end of the day, their students are as successful as all the other students that come into our class,” Gilmore said.

Finding a new workforce

Simmons Machine Tool Corp. in Albany has also found success with a proactive approach to recruiting and training. The company relies on relationships with local high schools, BOCES and Hudson Valley Community College.

Simmons president and COO David Davis said the biggest challenge in the past decade has been breaking through stereotypes that potential hires have about manufacturing work.

“When they start to look at their quality of life and some of the benefits they have … and they’re dealing with interesting stuff and they’re not just stuck in a cubicle,” Davis said, “people realize, oh, that’s what that’s about.”

When Simmons finds a high school graduate who might be a good fit, the opportunity they offer is hard to pass up: fully paid tuition for an associate degree from HVCC, part-time employment for those two years and over the summers, and a guaranteed full-time employment offer at the end of the program.

Sam Ruffle found his way to Simmons and the HVCC program a few years ago, after struggling to nail down a manufacturing job when most positions required five years of experience.

He had previously studied liberal arts at Keene State College in New Hampshire, but dropped out when he realized his prospects for employment were slim.

“I definitely still like the liberal arts, and I think everyone should have a background in it,” Ruffle said. “But as far as employable hard skills go, it’s hard to argue with manufacturing.”

That manufacturing can attract a student like Ruffle underscores the transformation of the industry in recent years. Ruffle recognizes that manufacturing is becoming much more digital and sophisticated. At Simmons, the factory is bright, clean and filled almost as much with computers as it is with machining tools.

“There is a huge challenge in attracting students to begin with. I think manufacturing still has that sort of 1950s mantra that it’s dirty, dark and dangerous, and it isn’t,” said Martha Ponge, director of apprenticeships for the Manufacturers Association of Central New York.

Ruffle agreed.

“I was definitely broken of that stereotype when I came here,” he said.

Ponge said it’s also a hard sell to high schools who aren’t interested in showing their students opportunities in manufacturing. Some guidance counselors don’t even know these opportunities exist.

“Most schools, their metric in the community is based on how many students they send to a four-year school,” she said.

With so few students exposed to manufacturing jobs in the first place, employers like Simmons have almost no choice but to offer incentives and training.

“Employers are willing to start from the very bottom to give people the skills they need to do the job,” Ponge said.

If those new hires can show up on time, do the work and stay off their phones – a real challenge for young workers – they can count on a career opportunity.

“Manufacturing is one of the only kinds of jobs left where people are working there for decades,” Ponge said. “They’re looking for people to commit to a career.”

Workers without traditional education can find careers outside of manufacturing, too. Rapidly growing technology companies are willing to take on coders trained through Albany Can Code, a nonprofit that works with a wide range of students, from college dropouts to adults looking for career changes.

“We have had people with no college at all, and some of them have turned out to be incredibly good coders,” said Janet Carmosky, co-founder and executive director of Albany Can Code.

“We serve everybody who has aptitude, interest and motivation for working in technology, and that’s what we screen for,” she said.

For Carmosky, it’s less about formal qualifications and more about reading, math and learning skills. The students she’s attracting are people who don’t fit the tech worker stereotype of young, white men.

“There are cultural barriers to identifying as someone who’s really interested in computers,” she said. Albany Can Code trains many women, people of color and students from low income backgrounds to fill positions such as developers or data analysts.

As New York businesses from manufacturing to technology continue searching for a new workforce, they’ll often find success turning to the candidates that have typically been cast aside.

“We have to broaden the outreach to find the people that are overlooked,” Carmosky said. ◆