4 Westchester Millennials Found Success Without a 4-Year Degree

These four millennials decided not to pursue four-year degrees — whether for financial or personal reasons — yet they still found satisfying jobs in a tight labor market.

Gerd "Alex" Lieske
Photo by Michael DiScullo

Gerd “Alex” Lieske

Construction Journeyman

Alex Lieske remembers the day he went to fill out an apprenticeship application at Laborers Local 60, a Hawthorne-based union for heavy construction workers. “I was the eighth person to get an application out of 100.” He considers it a day that changed his life and career trajectory.

Prior to filling out the application, Lieske was working at Westchester Tool Rental. The job introduced him to the construction field and he heard about the union from customers. “I had no idea what unions were at the time. So I did a lot of research on Local 60 before applying,” he says.

He completed an interview and then a physical for the apprenticeship spot. Lieske was one of 10 people chosen to complete the apprenticeship and initially went to school on Saturdays to learn all about the construction industry. The program consisted of 4,000 working hours to obtain a full journeyman rate, plus 300 hours of classroom training.

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While completing the apprenticeship, Local 60 helped place him in a job at Montesano Brothers, a heavy highway, paving, and utility construction company. The skills he was learning in class complemented the projects he was working on, such as cutting steel for the former Tappan Zee Bridge’s demolition and highway paving.

Lieske completed the 4,000 working hours in just two years. “I reached heights that I never thought I’d be able to reach in my job and I’m still learning every day. The apprenticeship changed my life and I’m forever grateful for Local 60,” he says. “College is not the only way to succeed in life. I wish more people knew about the apprenticeship program.”

Jordan Moran
Photo by Michael DiScullo

Jordan Moran

Cybersecurity Specialist

Originally from Ireland, Jordan Moran pursued an undergraduate degree in Media and Communications at Dublin City University. But when he moved to the U.S. at 21, he found that his degree wasn’t helping him secure the type of job that he wanted. After settling in Tarrytown, he decided to make a career change and obtain a certification course in cybersecurity at Westchester Community College (WCC). At first, he had considered specializing in digital forensics because he had an interest in law enforcement, but when he started taking the cybersecurity classes, he realized that the field appealed to the problem-solving side of his personality. Moran specializes in penetration testing, which is basically evaluating weak links in a network that can result in security breaches or hackers taking over an IT system.

Chaired by Professor John Watkins, the certification course at WCC helped Moran score a job as a Tier 2 dedicated IT support network specialist for the surgery department at Weill Cornell NY Medicine. “I got more out of my certificate than with the undergraduate degree I had. The personal attention that I got from WCC was second to none. I met with the department chair monthly in one-on-one meetings to help me on my career path. The things you are learning are things you can actually use — it is skills- and program-based, not theories,” Moran says. In fact, Moran gained such extensive knowledge in his field at WCC that he spent just a few short months in a Tier 1 entry-level IT position. When the hospital realized how much he already knew during his intake interview, they hired him as a Tier 2 specialist.

Moran also appreciated networking opportunities at WCC, special speakers from the FBI, and the opportunity to attend Defcon, the nation’s largest hacking conference. “Everyone at WCC is there to learn, and the teachers are there to guide you,” he says.

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Neil Penwarden
Photo by Michael DiScullo

Neil Penwarden

Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) Journeyman

As a young boy, Neil Penwarden always gravitated to working with his hands. A summer job pulling wires with an electrician solidified the idea that he didn’t want a regular nine-to-five office job following high school graduation.

Penwarden also didn’t want to spend money on a traditional four-year college when he had no clear career path in mind. “I didn’t have an end goal, which is frustrating, so I wanted to go out and work,” he says.

Penwarden applied to Local 21, a union for plumbers, steamfitters, and HVAC service technicians working on projects of all shapes and sizes in the Hudson Valley. He was elated that the first time he applied, he received entry into the apprenticeship program based in Peekskill.

Through the five-year apprenticeship program, Penwarden went to school twice a week at night to learn all aspects of HVAC systems. The courses covered topics such as safety, electrical controls, and hydronics. He also received hands-on training using various equipment.

Penwarden credits the apprenticeship with providing him with a good foundation on all topics related to HVAC.

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At the end of the program, Penwarden was prepared to take the STAR exam, which is a mastery certification for HVAC professionals. It is a four-hour test that Penwarden studied hard for, but it was worth it. Today, Penwarden is an HVAC journeyman for Bedford Hills-based Atlantic Westchester.

“I love my job. I’ve been on the top of skyscrapers in Manhattan at midnight and you can see the entire skyline,” he says. He’s especially enjoying the service aspect of his job. It’s a great feeling for Penwarden, he says, when someone calls complaining that it’s hot in their building when it’s 85 degrees outside and he knows exactly how to fix their HVAC system.

Natalia Castagnino

Medical Assistant

Growing up, Ossining native Natalia Castagnino never thought that she would one day work in her pediatrician’s office, but life experience and a WCC certification course helped her land a job at Briarcliff Pediatrics, the office where she was once a patient receiving everything from infant immunizations to yearly wellness visits.

Castagnino always was intrigued by the medical field and became a volunteer Emergency Medical Technician for the Ossining Volunteer Ambulance Corps. She loved the adrenaline rush of helping people and transporting them to the hospital so much that she received a certification as an EMT at WCC. After attending Ossining High School, Castagnino worked in an administrative capacity at several local businesses and then spent three years in Uruguay — where she has extended family — working as a cashier.

Castagnino gave birth to a son two years ago, and while she loved the excitement of being an EMT, it didn’t fit well with her new lifestyle. She had always enjoyed her time working in an office setting, so she thought becoming a medically certified administrative assistant would be the perfect marriage of her interest in medicine and her skill set.

“When you go to a doctor’s office or call there, I am the first person you will see or speak to, so it is important to maintain calm.”
—Natalia Castagnino

The medically certified administrative assistant (MCAA) is a semester-long course and one of 65 different degree and certificate programs offered at WCC. The program was taught via Zoom at night twice weekly, which worked for Castagnino from a childcare perspective. “When you go to a doctor’s office or call there, I am the first person you will see or speak to, so it is important to maintain calm and also address the problem. I learned everything from how to speak with patients [to] insurance claims, scheduling, and customer service.”

Castagnino’s professor taught her that many of her experiences are actually applicable to her job. For example, working as a cashier taught her the importance of good customer service. The classes also taught her terminology that was helpful for her to know and that she used even on her very first day at the job. “I knew terms such as guarantor and EMR (electronic medical record) and, without the class, I wouldn’t have,” she explains.

She loves her current job and the staff and doctors there. In fact, her son is a patient at the office as well. And just as he grows, Castagnino plans to expand her role at the practice, taking on increasing responsibility in the coming years.


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