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Education Times | Vocational School Values: THE RIGHT
CHOICE CAN PUT MONEY IN YOUR POCKET

Career Paths That Break the Stereotypes

The old image of vocational education is changing in response to the job market. Students can often get good-paying positions more quickly by going to trade schools.

May 23, 1999|JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Want a good job?

The resounding answer--go to college--may not be the sure bet that it seems.

Popular perception holds the four-year degree in such high esteem that it is now the goal of the vast majority of high school students and parents anxious about their children's future in a changing economy.

But to a number of educators, not to mention some unemployed college graduates, the baccalaureate-or-bust mentality does not always make sense.

College costs are rising. College attrition rates are high. Job prospects for some graduates are iffy. And not all high school students are adequately prepared for the college track, increasing their chances of trouble in the job market.

Consider this: Most jobs still require less than a four-year college degree. Nearly one in five graduates of four-year programs fail to find college-level jobs. And according to the U.S. Department of Labor, if you aren't a student of high ability, a university education is less likely to pay off.

If academics aren't your strong suit, there is another way.

Public and private trade schools can often put people to work faster, and for comparable or even better pay.

The stepchild of the education system, vocational education is waging "a tremendous battle against stereotypes," said Paul Plawin, spokesman for the Assn. for Career & Technical Education. It has suffered cuts in public funds, and is held in low public esteem relative to the university path.

But don't be fooled. Technical degrees can land trainees well-paying, secure jobs at a fraction of the time and cost of a university degree.

That is not to say one shouldn't try for the highest degree one can earn, Plawin said. Rather, it's a reason to rethink how to approach education.

"All we are saying is that nobody should be rigid," said Plawin. "We are trying to promote the idea that college and vocational [school] shouldn't be separate tracks."

For those unsure about the college track, Plawin suggests considering an associate's degree or vocational certificate as a first or intermediate step on a lifelong educational path.

Many programs, such as nursing, can get you into a good-paying job quickly, and relatively cheaply. From there, higher degrees or training levels can be achieved while working, or in between work stints.

Students Benefit From Maturity

Many students who do not shine in school early may find they do better as returning students, with more experience, focus and maturity, educators say.

Just a quick scan through the American Vocational Assn.'s book, "High Wage, High Skill Jobs," comes up with a host of career paths that pay solidly middle-class wages, often with two years of schooling or less.

They include construction and building inspectors averaging annual wages of $33,700, computer and office machine technicians at $32,000, library technicians at $30,000, restaurant and food service managers at $30,000, and physical therapy aides at $24,000 to $30,000.

There are also respiratory therapists at $33,000, welders at $25,000 to $40,000, heavy equipment mechanics at $31,800 to $50,000, paralegals at $32,900, dental hygienists at $37,950, and machinists at $28,600 to $60,000.

Certificates earned in just 18 months or less can, on average, yield an earnings gain of 28% for those who complete them, according to the California Community College Chancellor.

Average income three years out of college for those who hold vocational certificates in California is $28,000, a healthy leap forward for those trapped in low-wage unskilled work.

Good Jobs Available

The truth about the trades is quite different from popular perception, said David Schlessinger, director of automotive programs at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College.

Take auto body repair. "Our good ones are out there earning $60,000 a year within three or four years as independent contractors in shops," he said.

"There has always been a reservoir of people not suited to strictly academic work," he added. "What the hell would we do without them?"

Brad Ward, vice chairman of the Small Manufacturers Assn. of California and a manufacturing consultant, gives the example of his son, who is an attorney in a posh downtown office:

The son makes good money. But the information technology specialists who work on the computers in his office make more--and are younger. Such jobs "aren't just alternatives," said Ward. "They are superior alternatives."

College Graduates Take Trade Courses

No wonder that in community colleges across the country educators are noticing a phenomenon that Plawin calls "reverse transfers."

This refers to four-year college graduates who return to community colleges or trade schools for additional training.

Whether they are enrolled in a full-scale technical program or just taking a few classes, the trend shows the value of not thinking of academic and vocational tracks as being exclusive, Plawin said.

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