Career-building in trades retains strong attraction for students

November 24, 2014

EDITOR'S NOTE: For-profit colleges and technical training programs abound in Colorado. A few of them, though, have come under fire in recent years for high student-loan default rates, aggressive recruiting practices and other problems. Such colleges are the focus of new regulations announced by the federal Education Department last month. The problems also were profiled in a special report by The Denver Post in 2010.

In 2012, Westwood College reached a settlement with the Colorado Attorney General that returned $2.5 million to its students.

At 20, Tyler Gravel is looking forward to starting his new career in January.

It's just not the one he expected.

Gravel was a freshman at Colorado State University majoring in history and sociology when he realized that the learning environment wasn't a good fit for him.

"I wasn't motivated, and I realized that in order to get a job in my field, I might have to get a Ph.D. and be in a lot of debt," he said.

Instead, Gravel enrolled in the one-year barbering program at Emily Griffith Technical College and will graduate in January with a job in his hometown of Fort Collins. Right now, he's a weekend apprentice at the same licensed shop where he is honing his skills.

Like other Coloradans his age, Gravel is aware of the twin specters of millennial student debt and tough job markets. Those daunting trends have many students looking at trade schools, associate degrees and certification programs.

A four-year college degree isn't the only path to financial security and career satisfaction, says Alexandra Hall, chief economist for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

"Sometimes in our culture we get too stuck on the idea that everyone needs a college degree," she says. "The really good trades, such as electricians, auto mechanics, plumbers and health-care workers, don't necessarily require degrees, yet they offer as stable and well-compensated careers as many that do require a traditional college degree."

The National Skills Coalition, which advocates in states and nationally for workforce training, reports that middle-skill jobs — those that require more than high school but less than a four-year degree — make up the largest part of Colorado's labor market. The coalition classified half of all Colorado jobs as middle-skill in 2012. Its analysis of state labor projections estimated that through 2022, 47 percent of new job openings would be middle-skill.

The coalition also calculated that for Colorado, the 2012 supply of middle-skill jobs was higher than the number of middle-skill workers — unlike high- and low-skill jobs, in which the supply of workers was greater than the supply of jobs.

Jacob Vigil, job-placement specialist for career services at Emily Griffith Technical College, says its programs in the health sciences — medical and dental assistants, medical clerical jobs and pharmacy technicians — are booming with both male and female students.

The not-for-profit school was founded to provide education for those who couldn't afford a traditional four-year degree. Not only is the cost low — about a third of the per-credit cost of courses at traditional colleges cost — but the fields of training offered are diverse. "There are not many schools where you can (train to) become a professional baker, or become certified in Geographical Information Systems, for example," Vigil said.

Another advantage to some trade education programs: They're fast.

Some of Emily Griffiths' certificates can be completed in less than a year, says Christine Patoff, the school's director of marketing.

"I do know since the recession, enrollment at (Emily Griffith) has increased," Patoff said.

Community colleges — some of which offer technical training alongside academics that can transfer to a four-year college if needed — are another option that can save students money, especially if they can attend class and live at home.

"Community colleges are typically a third or even a quarter of the cost of a four-year institution, yet provide the same rigorous academics, says Kimberly Rein, director of marketing and communications at Red Rocks Community College.

Rein touted community colleges' learning-support services that help create the right environment for students who may have gifts in one field but struggle in others, for example, English or math.

Perhaps most appealing are the transfer agreements that community colleges have with four-year universities, Rein said.

In Colorado, community colleges have agreements with all public four-year schools in the state to allow seamless transfer of credit. That means students who decide to enter a four-year degree program save thousands, often without compromising academic quality, she said.

Completing high school is still a no-brainer, Hall cautions. In Colorado from September 2013 through August 2014, the average unemployment rate for those with less than a high school diploma was 8.9 percent; the rate for those who completed high school was 5.2 percent. For those with some post-secondary training, it dropped to 4.7 percent.

But in many fields, the lack of an ivory-tower degree is no barrier to early employment or future success. The outlook for health care, and nursing especially, is outstanding, Hall said.

"Nursing is one path where you can open some doors with an (associate) degree and go further, obtaining a bachelor's degree later," Hall said. "The sky's the limit."

On the other hand, in some certificate careers, the amount of work available can be erratic.

"Welders may have to leave the state for a while to continue to find work, but that's just par for the course in many occupations," Hall said.

Some non-degree fields also have fierce competition — cosmetology, for example.

In that world, "there are a lot of people who want to work in the field," Hall said. "It's also a lot of hard work to build up a skill set, and people should go into it with their eyes open."

Despite the potential for competition, future barber Gravel says he feels empowered by the fact that he will soon be working — and earning — in his field.

"My end goal is to own a barber shop someday, and I'll be pretty much financially independent when I leave school." Though his training was lower-cost, he did end up borrowing some money for it.

"I won't have to pay interest, though — I borrowed from my mom."

Three high-potential, non-degreed fields

Alexandra Hall, chief economist for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, cited the following three careers as having great potential for reward despite lower pay in the beginning.

Sales. "Sales is a really good field and one where you can develop a solid career without a degree, although with more education there may be further opportunities," she said.

Food. "The culinary field is another good opportunity, especially given the growth in boutique restaurants over the past decade. The drive to fresh, locally produced foods has provided opportunities for chefs and restaurateurs to create a niche for themselves."

Beer. "The expansion over the last few years in craft brewing in Colorado of beers and in craft distilling of whiskeys, gin and vodka also offers opportunities for people who want to work for brewers and distillers and learn that trade."