For many young people, a four-year college degree does not represent an investment in their future. Instead, it’s an unnecessary expense. Given the soaring costs of a college education, resulting student debt and the ever-changing nature of the American economy, many high school graduates are interested in alternatives to a traditional bachelor’s degree.
These alternatives include apprenticeships, associate’s degrees, certificate programs, and career and technical education. Here in Westchester, students can take advantage of a wide variety of such alternatives without straying far from their backyard.
“For students just coming out of high school, a lot of guidance counselors seem to forget about the trades and are just pushing kids to college,” says Thomas Carey, President of the Westchester-Putnam Central Labor Body. Apprenticeship programs offered through local trade unions — which teach career skills on the job — could serve as an essential alternative to a costly college education. Apprentices “don’t have any college debt, and they learn a trade that they can use throughout their life — whether it is as a welder, a blueprint reader, or a draftsperson,” he says.
A variety of local unions have apprenticeship programs, including Carey’s Local 21 of the United Association, which consists of plumbers, steamfitters, and HVAC technicians. Because so many college students end up saddled with years of debt, he has seen the popularity of such programs rise recently. He notes that he has been busy interviewing applicants from across the county. “It’s definitely a wide variety of people,” says Carey. “I did my first set of interviews yesterday, and they were from every ethnicity and every part of Westchester. I’m glad that word is getting out. We had 240 applications, and we’re only taking in 20 kids.”
In addition to the hands-on training offered through apprenticeships, there are many college offerings that take less time to complete than a bachelor’s degree. They include associate’s degrees and certificate programs.
“We partner with educational institutions, primarily Westchester Community College, to offer options for our customers and job seekers who are not seeking a four-year degree,” says Thom Kleiner, executive director of the Westchester-Putnam Workforce Development Board in White Plains. “We also partner with Southern Westchester BOCES on a variety of certification programs and vocational training — including welding and HVAC programs.”
Kleiner added that students who choose to participate in these programs come from all kinds of locations and backgrounds, though many seem to hail from Westchester’s more urban areas. “Many of our customers are those who have barriers to employment — including lack of childcare, language challenges, and the challenges that accompany low incomes,” he says.
Westchester Community College (WCC) in Valhalla offers a wide variety of both degree and non-degree programs that help students develop and improve job skills so they can quickly enter the workforce.
One of the college’s most popular programs is a 189-hour, three-class workforce offering in advanced manufacturing. Participants earn four industry-recognized credentials. Other short-term certifications or workforce offerings at WCC include programs in product management, Python and Red Hat/Linux programming, cybersecurity, user experience, and historical preservation. The college also offers associate degree programs in healthcare fields including nursing, radiologic technology, respiratory care, paramedicine, and medical coding. WCC’s short-term workforce certifications in healthcare teach a variety of skills, such as how to work an EKG machine or draw blood.
“We work closely with industry and community partners to provide employment opportunities for our students who participate in the various workforce and Career & Technical Education (CTE) programs.”
– Teresita Wisell, Vice President of Workforce Development and Community Education, WCC
“Westchester County is one of the most diverse counties in New York State, and our college represents this rich tapestry — racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically,” says Teresita Wisell, vice president of workforce development and community education at WCC. “WCC offers programs in exciting, high-demand fields, such as healthcare and cybersecurity, that attract a wide variety of students. We are an open-access institution of higher learning and meet all our students where they are, either socioeconomically or in their college preparedness. Our students are a robust, cross-sectional representation of Westchester County.”
Wisell says the wide variety of vocation programs WCC offers is key for students. But another important factor is the convenience of the college’s locations across the county. In addition to its main campus in Valhalla, WCC has extension centers in Mount Vernon, Ossining, Peekskill, and Yonkers which offer many of its workforce programs. There’s also a Workforce Education and Training Center in White Plains. Since the COVID pandemic, nearly all WCC courses have been offered on a remote basis to students, making participation even easier.
“We work closely with industry and community partners to provide employment opportunities for our students who participate in the various workforce and Career & Technical Education (CTE) programs,” says Wisell. “We have a career services area, which includes career and job fair opportunities, as well as resume and interview preparation services. From externships to internships, to job and career opportunities, we do all we can to provide these options to all of our students.”
Meanwhile, the Center for Career Services offers CTE programs in 21 different fields. It’s based in Valhalla and operated by Southern Westchester BOCES. Many earned certificates can be converted into college credit toward a degree. The fields include commercial art, electrical construction, plumbing, culinary arts, emergency medical services, TV and video production, as well as security, law, and policing. The Center also offers an “Intro to CTE” (iCTE) program. It includes a half-day general education career exploration, plus a training program for students who need specific training in a smaller learning environment. The iCTE programs offer hands-on skill development in specific trades — including auto body and detailing, baking, applied art and design, fashion, and office skills. But students don’t just learn specific job skills. They are also able to work on behaviors, dress, time management, and social skills that are required to both land and maintain a future job and career.