Colleges launch new grads into changing landscape, look to reopen in fall

July 8, 2020

By Karen Hanna

Amid a stomach-churning spring and summer, officials at colleges and universities that offer plastics programs say they’re hopeful for the future of new grads thrust into a world that looks different by the day. And, with coronavirus cases surging in many hot spots across the country, colleges and universities are still grappling with reopening plans.  

Longtime Pittsburg State University instructor Paul Herring said he’s looking forward to again teaching plastic engineering technology — a discipline that’s inherently hands-on — in person, after being separated from his students in the spring. “Our main concern is our laboratory classes, where we’re operating equipment,” he said. 

Institutions are working on their fall semester plans. For instanceboth Kansas-based Pittsburg State and UMass Lowell plan to offer a mix of online and in-person classes. Meanwhile, other institutions are determined to see students back in the classroom when the fall semester begins. “We are committed to returning to in-person instruction in Fall 2020,” said Shannon Munro, VP of workforce development at the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport. 

Herring recently reflected on the unusual conclusion of another successful year for the four-year-degree program. Of the program’s 19 graduating seniors, the vast majority had already lined up jobs by mid-May, though the start date for at least one was put on hold. At an average starting salary of about $55,000 over the past several years, jobs have run the gamut across processes, with the latest rookies accepting work across the country, from California to Florida. 

“We’re still getting calls from companies about our graduates,” he said a few weeks after graduation. For a couple of companies, including subsidiaries of medical molder Beckton located within several hours’ drive of Pittsburg, Kan., new projects have opened up opportunities for research and engineering roles. 

Herring predicted “a lot of opportunities for new products, new business and maybe reshoring.” 

Tim Weston, Plastics & Polymer Technology department head at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, which offers two degrees related to the plastics industry, shared Herring’s outlook regarding the possibility of reshoring. He said demand for medical supplies, personal protective equipment and food packaging is especially strong. “I would anticipate that the onshoring of many supply chains will cause a real boom in the plastics industry over the next few years. This class is ideally positioned to take advantage of that growth. 

Herring said he’s tried to model for his students a sense of optimism amid uncertainty. In June, he was already looking toward next year’s NPE, where students have occasionally nabbed job offers.  

“It’s not all doom and gloom, for sure,” he said. 

Karen Hanna, associate editor

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Pennsylvania College of Technology, Williamsport, Pa.,

Pittsburg State University, Pittsburg, Kan.,