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Education Times | Vocational School Values: THE RIGHT

Want to Learn a Trade? Do Homework Before Choosing a School

May 23, 1999

When it comes to pursuing an education in the trades, deciding on an occupation is only the first step. The second one--deciding where to go to school--might give you more trouble.

That's because the options for vocational training are vast. The state Bureau for Private Post-Secondary and Vocational Education regulates about 2,500 schools statewide, including hundreds in Los Angeles County. There are schools for blacksmiths, cooks in Chinese restaurants, smog technicians and jewelers. Whether you are planning to be a masseuse or a minister, though, "students have to be very savvy shoppers and take their time," said Doug Laue, interim chief of the regulatory bureau.

Students' complaints about private schools come into the bureau by the hundreds. The bureau helps mediate disputes. But a better path is to avoid trouble to begin with.

Here's a checklist of steps to take:

* Consider your options. Do you want to go part-time or full-time, nighttime or day? Look at comparable programs in public schools. California community colleges offer one of the cheapest post-secondary educations in the country at $12 per unit.

* Check with the state Bureau for Private Post-Secondary and Vocational Education to make sure the school you are choosing has passed muster with regulators. Vocational schools were once notorious for fraud. The bureau, organized last year after industry complaints resulted in the dismantling of its predecessor, reviews and investigates schools. Most problems have to do with financial instability, Laue said. Criminal investigations are rare, but complaints are numerous. To check the status of a school call the bureau at (916) 445-3427.

* Do your homework. Read the school's literature. Study the catalog. Sit in on a class. Resist pressure to sign up right away. Make sure you understand what you will owe, and when. "Most complaints," said Nancy Stockman, bureau education administrator, "have to do with people who didn't understand what they were getting into."

* Call employers. Researching job prospects on your own may be the most important step you take, Laue said. Don't rely on what friends or school officials tell you. Go to the industry in which you want to work, and call personnel officers and proprietors. Ask if the training the school is offering will get you the job you want. Ask about minimum qualifications, starting positions and wages.

* Ask the school for placement data. Most private schools are required to report placements and salaries of graduates in their annual reports. Check to make sure recent graduates are getting jobs in their fields at the salary you want.

* If the trade you are considering requires a license, check with the state licensing agency in charge to make sure the training you will get matches its requirements.

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