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College is a long interview for life

John K.
Associate of Occupational Science in Manufacturing Technical Systems
Hudson Valley Community College, 2013

I had worked in sales for a major cell phone company for the better part of a decade; I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and it seemed like all of my friends were moving on to more grown-up pursuits like buying houses.  They all had much more stable and better paying jobs than I did.  One day, I was at a barbeque looking around at my friends, and I realized that the only difference between me and them was that they had all gone back to school.

Soon thereafter came the straw that broke the camel’s back.  I went to apply for a sales job at a different cell phone company, after working in that field for 10 years, and they wouldn’t even interview me without having a degree. There’s a surplus of talented people looking for jobs, and sometimes without a college education you can’t even get your foot in the door for an interview.

I decided then to go talk to a career counselor at the local community college; I didn’t know what I wanted to go to school for, but I knew I wanted a good job.  He asked me what my interests were, and I told him that I loved mountain biking and jiu jitsu, but I know I’m not good enough at either of those to do them for a living.  I wanted a job, plain and simple; I didn’t have to love it, that’s why they’re paying me to be there. 

He pulled up some statistics and 87 percent of students in their manufacturing technical systems program had jobs before they even graduated.  I did a bit of research, and it looked like in my geographic area had a lot of industries that needed that specialty.

And sure enough, with some perseverance and effort, I had a job in my field within a semester of enrolling.  Only 4 out of 37 students in my program didn’t have a job when they graduated.  I’d highly recommend focusing on where people are hiring in your area, and getting a degree in that field.

However, once you’re in school in that field, a job isn’t a guarantee.  You need to remain career-focused throughout your education.  Even with my education, I was very persistent in getting an interview with the company I wanted to get hired with.

Surround yourself with people who are interested in the same field.  A lot of my classmates already worked for the company I was targeting, and that company paid for them to go to school for the machining program. It was an ideal situation:  you’re a student and working your job at the company, they check your grades, pay you to go to school, and when you’re done you have a job waiting for you.

With hard work I was able to get myself into that program halfway through my associate degree and completed it.

The big thing for me was making friends and talking to the people in the industry.  I paired up for projects with a guy who was already hired by the company I wanted to work for.  Make sure you work with other students who are in school to get a job, who are motivated. You’ll find people that are very motivated, and people who are there to party. Have fun, but be sure you remember why you’re there and surround yourself with the right people.

Many of your professors will be from the industry you’re looking to work in too, so they still have contacts there – use those connections.  I made sure that the professors liked me, even the ones that I hated; I tried to be positive, on time, stay late, and work hard on projects.  When it came down to it, they were able to give me great references. 

The whole time I was going to school, my focus was that I wanted a job, a good job.  I think it’s important to see school not as just a training period; get your degree and some experience.

Don’t be afraid to work and go to school; there are lots of jobs where you can work in your field before finishing your education.  Machining is a great field for that, but take dental assisting, you could get hired as a receptionist at a dental office before you’ve graduated.  When you have your degree, you’re going to be much more desirable if you also have the experience to go with it, not to mention the connections that will come from working in that dental office.

My classes were all on-campus, as an education in machining is very hands-on.  I lived with my parents and then in my own apartment while going to school.  For me, moving while going to school was an added stress.  I recommend having a consistent living situation while you’re getting your degree. And have a set study area.

With my associate degree in manufacturing technical systems, I work as a machinist, making things out of metal like nuclear turbine generators, gas turbine generators, and hydro turbine generators.  To work in this field I needed the very specific career training that came with my degree; I would’ve either needed to go to school for this or apprentice somewhere.

I found the college enrollment and financial aid process pretty straightforward, with the help of all of the resources and people available to me. There’s a resource to get you through every step and a person who’s paid to help you through every part of the process. But it’s your responsibility to go make it happen.

My program had a specific counselor who was right there in the building to help with everything after enrollment as well, such as scheduling questions, etc.

The thing I’d stress to people looking to go to college is go for something that will get you a job, and keep that as your primary focus.  You’re going to college for a career, not because it’s what you do after high school, or what your parents want you to do, or because you’re bored.

I thankfully didn’t go into debt to pay for college.  I saved a lot of money living with my parents, and took advantage of FAFSA.  I also got significant tuition reimbursement from my company.

All in all, my college experience was exhausting but definitely rewarding.

EduTrek Comments

  • Get your degree with the goal of having a career in that field, and keep that your primary focus throughout college.  .  
  • Remember that once you’re in school in your chosen field, a job isn’t a guarantee.  Remain career-focused throughout your education; school isn’t just a training period, it’s a good time to get some serious job experience.
  • Surround yourself with other students who are similarly career and goal motivated.  When it comes time for group projects, this is especially important. 
  • Form close relationships with your professors, as many of them are going to have worked (or still work) in the industry you’re looking for a job in, and will have contacts there.  Show that you’re a valuable candidate by being positive, coming to class on time, and working hard.
  • Try to get a job in your field while you’re in school.  For example, if you’re going to school for dental assisting, try to get a job as a receptionist in a dental office.  That job will get you hands-on experience and connections in your field.