CANONSBURG – Many on the panel of adults on the stage at Canon-McMillan High School Tuesday evening said they found rewarding careers through a variety of experiences, including helpful teachers, happenstance or by sheer gumption to improve their earnings.
In an event that illustrated the multiple ways in which career pathways can occur, the other common message from the organizer was there are plenty of opportunities for those with technical skills that don’t necessarily require four years of college.
The Polytechnic Career Awareness Event, organized by the Johnstown-based Challenge Program Inc., a nonprofit that connects business and education, drew about 50 parents and students for the discussion. It included networking with representatives from educational and career resources organizations.
“Polytechnic” is an umbrella term that means many technologies. “It encompasses a wide range of industries from manufacturing, skilled trades, health care and energy, all with family-sustaining wages,” said the Challenge Program’s manager of program development, Maria Campieri.
Those who spoke on the stage underscored the fact that the careers they pursued have a commonality in that they require technical skills.
Megan Crow, a 2012 graduate of Charleroi Area High School, told the audience she was encouraged by a teacher to take a course in drafting while in high school. She attended Pittsburgh Technical College for two years for mechanical drafting, interning at two area industrial companies, and for the past three years has been employed as a facilities technician at Range Resources.
Five years ago, Christie Byers, who today is assistant director of wellness at Country Meadows Retirement Communities, was a single mother who became unemployed after working 22 years in the insurance industry. When contemplating a new career path, Byers, impressed by nurses who had helped her grandfather who had Alzheimer’s disease, learned of an opening for a personal care associate position.
While her only care experience was assisting her grandfather, Byers said she asked the employment specialist to take a chance on her.
She ultimately worked her way through several positions at Country Meadows, taking courses at night to become a licensed practical nurse while working full time to pay her bills. She later received a full nursing scholarship from her employer.
When asked by Campieri what she would tell someone who is contemplating a career, Byers didn’t hesitate.
“Don’t be afraid to do something different,” she said.
Crow said her experience told her being different was something she accepted.
“I was the only girl in class in school,” she said of her high school course that put her on her career path.
Trinity High School graduate Ryan Healy works today as a district production manager at Range Resources, but coming out of high school, his dream was to play college football. He went to school in Ohio and spent a semester at California University of Pennsylvania before taking a job as a salesman at a local car dealership where he had worked in high school.
As car sales plummeted during the Great Recession, Healy joined Range Resources in 2008 in its land-leasing department, working his way up through a variety positions in leasing and production. Today, he has 90 employees reporting to him.
Healy said Range’s human resources department showed him how he could follow a career path with multiple opportunities for advancement.
Others on the panel shared similar experiences of either looking for work that provided better income or deciding to attend a technical school for two years or less before finding fulfilling careers.
Keynote speaker Jeff Kotula of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce provided some government statistics that show the American workforce offers far more opportunities for those with technical skills.
Out of every 10 jobs now available, Kotula said, one requires a master’s degree, two seek a four-year degree, but the other seven need someone who has a one-year certification or a two-year degree in a technical discipline.
The country is also facing a major shortage of qualified people to take skilled jobs, he said, noting 53 percent of skilled workers are now 45 or older.
Of the 123 million jobs now open, there are only 53 million people with the right education to fill them, he said.
“The average age of a welder is 55,” Kotula said, noting the trend of baby boomers retiring.
Challenge Program Director Barbara Grandinetti said the program currently works with 120 schools in the tri-state area, bringing businesses in to talk with students about job opportunities in their communities. She said the program is designed to get students to explore alternative career paths.
“We’re not telling people not to go to college; we’re telling them there are other opportunities,” she said.