It’s considered common sense in this country that a bachelor’s degree, if not an advanced degree, is a crucial step toward building a career in business. This belief, woven into the fabric of society, leads legions of young people to take out massive student loans and spend four—even sometimes eight—years in the classroom before finally diving into their chosen professions.
But is that really necessary?
If Chet Carpenter’s story is any indication, a college education is definitely not the only path to success. Carpenter, major projects global construction manager leader for Invista, the world’s largest integrated fiber, resin, and intermediates company, never set foot in a college classroom on the way to building a robust career in the construction industry. Instead, he has relied on a series of mentors and his own determination to take on any responsibilities that have been offered to him.
“I had no real direction when I graduated from high school,” he says. “I was working in a grocery store and a fast-food restaurant to make ends meet. Growing up in a Christian home, I had no access to television or anything like that, so I didn’t have the role models other kids did, who they looked up to and tried to model their lives after. My mentors were the individuals around me.”
Carpenter’s first and primary mentor was Doug Fletcher. Although Fletcher was 10 years older, they attended the same church, and the older boy, whom Carpenter had always admired, immediately took him under his wing. Fletcher had begun his career in the construction industry, and the opportunity to do the same soon arose for Carpenter.
Carpenter was still doing double duty at the grocery store and the restaurant, though, and he was about to get married. Seeing that his work situation left him dog tired and struggling to support his family, Fletcher offered him a job as an electrical technician’s helper, even though Carpenter had no experience in the field.
Carpenter began his first day of work at 2:30 in the morning, picking Fletcher up to drive him the 70 miles to work. Once they arrived at the shop, he realized he didn’t even have steel-toed boots (Carpenter’s soon-to-be father-in-law gave him $100 to purchase them later that evening).
“Doug turned me over to the supervisor and said, ‘I don’t want you to play games with this boy; teach him how to wire panels and show him how we run this business,’” Carpenter recalls. “So I wasn’t just installing conduit and pulling wires. I asked a lot of questions, and they gave me answers. I learned about why we had certain unit rates, what they were, and how to look at and manage performance factors.”
As Carpenter learned more about the business, his pay increased, and he saw that he could comfortably pay his bills and take care of his family. From there, he decided that whenever there was an opportunity to learn something new and make more money, he would always take it, even if it meant longer hours or time out of the country.
In the ensuing years, Carpenter worked in various sectors of the construction business, including in copper mines, paper mills, oil refineries, and nuclear facilities. He gained experience working all across the country and in Canada, France, the Caribbean, and South America.
“Never, as a young man, did I spell out ‘This is how I want my career to be,’” he says. “When opportunities made themselves available, I never said no.”
In 2013, Carpenter joined Invista. Today, he’s tasked with managing the company’s largest construction projects, including anything that costs $10 million or more. He supports each project through its many phases, from contracting, to budgeting for deliverables, to actual execution. His latest project in France will take an estimated one million man hours to complete.
While he does see a lot of value in a college education, Carpenter feels strongly that had he not taken the path he did, he probably wouldn’t have ended up where he is today. He tries to impart that to young people who are interested in the profession, and he thinks that having more workers who dive right into working and gaining experience will only benefit the industry.
Carpenter remembers the early days—working in the winter chill, breaking nine-foot icicles off of steel beams before allowing other workers on-site, or sweltering in 114-degree heat in Arizona. He knows that if he had gotten a college education, he might have been able to avoid those experiences, but he says they’ve been invaluable to him in building the career he has.
He passionately believes that the construction field can bring opportunities to anyone willing to work hard, regardless of their education level. “A college education is not necessary to pursue this career,” he says. “I think we’ve convinced everybody that if you don’t have a college education, you don’t have opportunities, but it isn’t true. Everyone wants to sit behind a computer in an air-conditioned office. But you can make a good living in construction; you can operate a crane and make six digits.”
Carpenter has another key piece of advice for young people: “If you have a mentor like I did, someone who will help you out and give you that chance, take that opportunity and make the most that you can out of it.”
Photos: JC Penney Portrait Studios, Clisso Photography