Sunlight beams onto chemical reactors, chain valves and carbon steel pipes. A sticker advises that “Safety Begins Here” – a nod to the long tradition of prioritizing the chemical industry’s safety culture.
There’s a professional vibe in the air and a buzz of excitement as students, decked out in safety glasses and hard hats, adjust valves, record data and monitor reactions.
Welcome to Delta College’s chemical processing lab.
Teresa McCoy, a Midland native and mother of three, a chemical processing apprenticeship program is helping her advance into a better career with Dow’s processing facility in her hometown.
“I thought that if I wasn’t good with using tools that I wouldn’t be good at the job,” McCoy said. “But when I got to see all the different things they did like the computers and taking samples and running experiments in the lab, and also a lot of troubleshooting … it’s unique, but I enjoy it.”
In April, McCoy received her associate degree in chemical processing while continuing her Dow Chemical Process Operator Registered Apprenticeship Program in partnership with Delta College.
As a female chemical processor, she is blazing new trails for other women to consider pursuing Professional Trades careers.
“Teresa works (tirelessly),” says Scott Martin, apprenticeship program leader at Dow. “She’s a great example for more women to follow.”
Going PRO gets state going
Professional Trades are the name of the game as Michigan looks to close the state’s talent gap.
“With more than 545,000 Professional Trades careers coming open through 2026, the need for Professional Trades talent has never been greater,” said Stephanie Beckhorn, acting director of the Talent and Economic Development (Ted) Department of Michigan. “These highly skilled individuals are in extraordinary demand for rewarding, high-paying careers in healthcare, information technology, advanced manufacturing, construction and automotive.”
In response, Ted launched Going PRO in Michigan, an education and awareness campaign to help employers statewide connect with prospective job candidates. Going PRO is the largest effort in state history to support the recruitment and retention of talent to address Michigan’s shortage in Professional Trades.
Going PRO highlights a diverse range of high-skilled trade occupations and industries – careers Ted collectively refers to as Professional Trades.
“If you like working with your hands and you can make your head and your hands work together, then Professional Trades is a good area to go into,” said Harvey Schneider, a skilled trades manager in Delta College’s Business and Technology Division.
“That’s especially true now because there is so much immediate demand for workers with this skill set, and we expect the need to continue for the foreseeable future,” Schneider said.
Careers without tuition debt
Proponents say Professional Trades can provide opportunities to avoid tuition debt through options such as Dow’s paid apprenticeships where the employer pays for students’ education and training.
A major plus of the two-year Delta program is participants earn while they learn. Delta’s Class of 2019 chemical processing students graduated debt-free in April with associate degrees attained while earning full-time paychecks.
The graduates are thrilled they earned diplomas financed by Dow and are spared the burden of paying back college loans.
“There are some long days involved for sure,” said Richard Putnam, 48, of Bay City, one of McCoy’s peers in the Dow apprenticeship program. “But the rewards are so great at the end that it’s definitely worth all the time and effort you’re putting in.”
Trent Oldenburg, 20, of Shields, chose Dow’s chemical processing apprenticeship after graduating high school without a clear career goal.
“By the end of this, I’ll have a better-paying job and no tuition debt,” he said.
Chemical processing demystified
Chemical processing operators monitor chemical reactions on computers, checking temperature and pressure to ensure the process is working as expected. As an operator, their role may involve handling, transporting, storage and disposal of chemicals and other materials; operating, monitoring and controlling chemical processes; working with chemical engineers and technical co-workers; and managing normal equipment maintenance.
“We’ve got engineers that write the recipe – we make the batches,” explains Putnam. “If your process is running smoothly, then you’re all good.”
Apprentices train to be production operators in fields like specialty and basic chemical manufacturing, food and beverage production, oil refining, power generation and wastewater treatment.
Chemical processing is just one of many sought-after Professional Trades fields. The median income for a career in Professional Trades in Michigan is a healthy $54,000, according to the Michigan Bureau of Labor Market Information & Strategic Initiatives.
“No matter what the future brings with technology, you’re still going to have people making the product,” Martin said. “You’re still going to have people maintaining the product, the equipment that makes the product. That’s not going away, ever.”
Delta and Dow also partner to offer the Chemical Process Operator Fast Start™ program, which runs in collaboration with Great Lakes Bay Michigan Works! and area employers. Fast Start is an intensive, 13-week program that’s open to students only when there is an immediate demand for chemical processing operators.
Apprenticeships booming in Michigan
Apprenticeships are also proving to be a great way to fill Michigan’s talent pipeline.
Registered apprentices through the U.S. Department of Labor require employers to pay students’ tuition, books, fees and full-time wages. Wages rise over the course of the apprenticeship as skills and knowledge increase. Apprentices gain a nationally recognized credential, and employers gain a highly trained, diverse and dedicated workforce.
Modeled after Germany’s highly successful apprenticeship training programs, Dow’s program at Delta attracted nearly 200 applicants in 2017. Ten were selected for chemical processing, instrumentation and millwright roles.
“We’re hoping (these apprentices) are going to be the leaders of tomorrow,” Martin said.
In 2018, Michigan ranked third in the nation with nearly 16,000 active apprentices, according to the Labor Department. Last year, Michigan saw at least 42 new companies register apprenticeship programs, and 2,300 apprentices began their journey in various high-demand industries.
“More and more people are realizing there are many paths to a successful career in Professional Trades – and an apprenticeship is certainly one of them,” said Beckhorn.