Add a little color: associate degrees

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For decades, parents have told their children: “Get a college degree.” But the economic rough patch, and the huge expense of college, has raised doubts about that rote advice for achieving success.

Jobs are hard to find even for college graduates. Graduates can have a tough time finding a job that matches their education — and paying back loans that can reach tens of thousands of dollars.

At the same time, paradoxically, manufacturing needs skilled workers. For plastics, that’s true even though the number of plastics jobs has declined because of the recession, industry consolidation and increased automation and productivity.

What’s the answer?

You could enroll in four-year degrees in plastics engineering at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Ferris State University and Penn State Erie’s Behrend College. But lesser-known community colleges and technology schools offer a good, reasonably priced alternative — two-year associate degrees.

We profile two in this week’s issue. On Page 1, you can read about Terra State Community College in Fremont, Ohio, the leading school for color matching. The program was launched more than 20 years ago, with strong, ongoing support from the Color and Appearance Division of the Society of Plastics Engineers.

Terra is having a hard time getting students, even though jobs are plentiful for trained color technicians. Part of the reason is Fremont’s rural location in northwestern Ohio. The school is surrounded by cornfields, and it doesn’t have dormitories. Its student base is largely local. That should change as Terra pushes distance learning. Color matching is a vocation with an artistic bent, as the color industry touches our lives everyday.

Another Plastics News story details a new associate degree program in thermoforming, at Mid Michigan Community College in Harrison, Mich., northwest of Midland. The National Science Foundation awarded MMCC a grant of $717,000. The two-year degree can be transferred to nearby Ferris State. MMCC also is beefing up its programs for welding and computer numerical controlled machining.

Suddenly, thermoforming is hot. In Williamsport, Pa., the Pennsylvania College of Technology has a thermoforming center at its Plastics Manufacturing Center. Penn College also is home to a rotational molding center. Both get lots of support from the industry.

And there are others. Of course, the total plastics enrollment at these schools only amounts to a drop in the bucket of today’s unfilled factory jobs. That means these programs should be full.

Not everybody has to get a traditional four-year degree. Plastics education offers a targeted, achievable goal, with a job waiting at the end. Associate degrees and certificate programs come at a reasonable price. That’s an important message in these practical times. Some parents and students are questioning the huge expense of college, as are a contrarian group of economists, entrepreneurs and even educators.

Sallie Mae, the student loan provider, reports that 69 percent of families make their college decisions based on cost, eliminating some choices.

It’s time to get creative. Color matching, anyone?

Bregar is a Plastics News senior staff reporter.