College or work? Maybe the path isn’t so cut-and-dry

Middle ground: The choice for most high school graduates is usually work vs. college -- but it doesn't have to be, according to workforce-development ace Rosalie Drago.

As costs rise and debt mounts, debate rages about the “necessity” of college.

Throw in a worker shortage in technical occupations that don’t require degrees, and the lines are clearly drawn for most high school graduates: work vs. college.

Usually absent from the conversation is another pathway to a degree: work, then college.

It’s easy to understand why. Most people, parents in particular, believe anything short of college limits future opportunities. Also, high school has no doubt stressed that the smart student – both academically and in the choices he or she makes – goes to college.

So higher academic achievers are tracked for college and steered away from vocational work experiences, while lower achievers are tracked for Career and Technical Education programs. But if good earnings and mastery of a craft are the measures of success, the college path may actually delay achievement.

According to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, graduates with technical or applied-science associate’s degree out-earn their bachelor-degreed peers out of the gate by as much as $11,000 annually; not surprising, notes the ASCD, as those CTE students were more likely to develop new problem-solving, time-management and critical-thinking skills in high school, including better chops for research and math.

And demand for those skills is on the rise, with the ASCD predicting roughly 16.5 million job openings in 2020 requiring only “some college” or an associate’s degree. In fact, according to the association, half of all STEM jobs in the nation are open to workers with less than a bachelor’s degree.

You don’t have to explain it to Thomas London Jr., a Wyandanch Memorial High School graduate and Huntington Station-based supply chain manager for Swiss conglomerate Novartis. London started his career working the production line on the packaging floor of a cosmetics company – not because he didn’t want to go to college, he notes, but because “I had to be an adult very fast, due to becoming a young parent.”

Rosalie Drago: Various degrees of success.

Working the floor inspired London to learn about the company’s other operations; a good ethic carried him from the floor to the warehouse to the Compounding Department, where he was finally able to enroll at Farmingdale State College and eventually earn a business-management degree.

New opportunities followed – packaging floor supervisor, a gig in the Planning Department and, suddenly, a 13-year career at the cosmetics firm, complete with a college degree and clear progression up the company ladder.

London decided he needed a new challenge and took a supply-planning position at Novartis, and after two years of that transferred into procurements.

“I always looked at every position as a stepping stone,” he notes. “I always wanted to do a better job from the day before.”

There were plenty of challenges along the way, primarily balancing work and school, a barrier London busted by planning ahead as much as possible. For example: scheduling his vacation days at work to coincide with finals.

And there were disappointments to overcome – performance reviews that fell short, with his attention split, promotions that went to someone else.

“I would say to always stay positive and not get discouraged,” London says. “Stay focused on your goal – that is the key.”

George Kuzma also knows a bit about sticktoitiveness, and the factory floor. Now a senior vice president managing global supply chains for The Estée Lauder Companies, Kuzma began his career as a production supervisor in a Melville manufacturing plant – and, like London, was able to glean something valuable from every stop along his professional path.

One important lesson: The longer you stay with something, the better.

Thomas Jondon Jr.: Grew up fast, but developed professionally at his own pace.

“When you start by working in an entry-level role on the manufacturing floor, you learn all of the intricacies of what it takes to make a product and the challenges and opportunities that come with that,” Kuzma says. “There is no shortage of opportunities to grow and develop,  and by sticking with one company for a long time, you can truly learn all of the ins and outs.”

This is a fairly common theme at Estée Lauder, where workers representing every educational level – from high school GED to master’s degree and beyond – tend to stick around, according to Kuzma.

“When we celebrated our 50th anniversary in Melville a few years ago, we had more than 250 employees … who had been with us for more than 20 years, and nearly 25 employees who had been with ELC for more than 40 years,” he notes. “We’re lucky to have employees who stay at the company for their entire career.”

London, for one, thinks everybody should start their careers at the entry level, even future executives.

“This allows you to see the everyday struggles of the employees and helps you gain a lot of knowledge on the day-to-day operations,” he says. “And working day-to-day with the teams teaches you how to interact with other team members who see things from a different perspective.”

London’s idea of cultivating diverse perspectives – in particular, the viewpoints of professionals with different educational backgrounds – is “fully embedded” in Estée Lauder ‘s corporate culture, notes Kuzma, and is a big part of the multinational’s business strategy.

“We believe that diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives result in greater innovation and problem-solving across our company,” the senior VP says.

Because of my personal circumstances and learning style (experiential and hand-on), I worked first. And despite my parents’ hand-wringing, this choice helped me travel the world, find my passion and build new skills – all while matching (or besting) the peer salaries and eventually achieving both a bachelor’s and master’s degree.

I’m hardly alone, and I don’t just mean London and Kuzma. With many of our larger employers offering tuition-reimbursement programs, this is playing out all over Long Island. Many successful executives started at the entry level and worked their way up; the career path, it turns out, goes both ways.

A good reminder that the workforce is more than just statistics, and a career is more than just a job – it’s a series of occupations over a significant portion of a person’s life, with many choices and steps along the way.

Rosalie Drago is Long Island regional director for the Workforce Development Institute, a statewide nonprofit focused on job creation and retention. The WDI pilots, supports and scales workforce-development initiatives that foster empowering careers for Long Islanders and a talented workforce for Long Island businesses.