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Rewiring the Job Market

By wmadministrator

Participants climb utility poles in Somerset Community College’s lineman training program.

With U.S. student-loan debt this year eclipsing $1 trillion and escalating tuition costs for the job market’s traditional gold-standard four-year college degree showing little sign of slowing, skills training certificate programs are proving their worth.

Kentucky Community and Technical College System enrollment has increased steadily in recent years, KCTCS Public Relations Manager Kristi Middleton said, most notably in 2009 as recessionary unemployment climbed. A couple of years later in 2010-11, more than 60 percent of KCTCS’ 27,813 program completions were for certificate credentials rather than associate’s or bachelor’s degrees.

In fact, beginning in 2009-10, certificates surpassed bachelor’s degrees awarded by Kentucky’s public colleges and universities. As recently as 2001-02, four-year baccalaureate degrees outnumbered certificates more than 3-to-1.

Commonwealth residents earn the vast majority of certificates, which confirm completion of a specific skills-oriented curriculum, at KCTCS’ 16 institutions across the state.

“We offer all kinds of (skills) certificates, from as little as six credit hours all the way up to 30 hours,” KCTCS Chancellor Dr. Jay Box said. “All of these certificates were developed for the purpose of meeting the needs of businesses and industry, and the lengths are determined by the level of job that the skills require.”

Certificate earners often get jobs quickly. Among students who left KCTCS in 2009-10 with a fresh certificate, Middleton said, more than 62 percent were employed within six months – and that doesn’t include the self-employed and those who work out of state.

Lineman grads have high placement rate

Some who earned certificates went to work as apprentices and later became journeymen with Jackson Energy Cooperative, for example. The company’s heavy recruitment from the lineman training program at KCTCS’s Somerset Community College is testament to the viability of certificates as immediate job creators without the cost of a four-year degree.

The lineman program was developed at the request of electric companies in Kentucky. SCC partnered with local, state and national entities to create a state-of-the-art facility to training unemployed applicants for the lineman trade. The first eight-week course began in 2008, and the program is now in its 19th consecutive class. It boasts a 96 percent placement rate, having placed 245 into careers with RECCs, municipal power companies and major line-construction companies.

In a state and national economy with unemployment numbers consistently above 8 percent since 2009, such numbers are not to be ignored, especially considering the basic program can be completed in only eight weeks.

Carol Wright, chief operations officer at Jackson Energy Cooperative, said the skills taught begin with learning the tools associated with the industry and such basics as how to climb a pole.

“The hands-on training introduces the students to all the tools and physical hardware associated with line work, including the operation of large bucket and digger trucks,” Wright said. “All of these skills are necessary for any type of utility lineman, whether it be an electric utility, telephone, cable or fiber(-optic line) company. So all of the training transfers to any utility as they all employ lineman. A majority of the training deals with construction of overhead and underground electrical facilities, but this type of training is very useful to any lineman in any utility.”

All the apprentices Jackson Energy has hired since 2008 are graduates of the lineman training program, she said, with starting pay at the apprentice level ranging from $13 to $18 per hour.

“As the apprentice continues to learn the skills necessary to become a journeyman, which usually takes four years of on-the-job training, they have the potential to earn $60,000 to $100,000 per year as an annual salary depending on the location of the utility,” Wright said.

Such a journeyman lineman does not need a two- or four-year degree, but she said a degree would be a valuable asset for advancement into supervisory and management positions.

“Attending college is important,” Wright said. “However, the ultimate goal of attending any college is to find a career that meets your passion in life and one that will support yourself and your family financially.

“Tuition at four-year colleges continues to increase annually, and upon graduation, it takes years for many students to pay off their student loans. Community colleges have lower tuition rates and can prepare a student for an excellent career in two years or less. And workforce-development training programs like the Lineman Training Program can help young adults reach a lifelong career in the same manner.”

At Northern Kentucky-based Gateway Community College (also a member of KCTCS), Dr. Angie Taylor, vice president of Workforce Solutions and Innovations, helps students, job seekers and employers assemble the pieces of successful careers – typically utilizing non-traditional methods.

“Community colleges are big on certificates, diplomas and degrees, but I do a lot of work with career pathways, and for me what’s important is to create credentials that get people workforce ready,” Taylor said. It is important also, she said, for students to keep a possible future degree track in mind with their certificates.

Better pay for some, big savings for others

But certificates work well also for the unemployed, underemployed or workers needing a boost in salary.

“Certificates are really critical because many people have gotten a certificate, and they get a raise,” Taylor said.

The best news for working adults or other non-traditional students, she said, is that because certificates are often customized to fit daily work, many employers pay for certificates and other job-enhancement training. Many large employers like the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport and Citicorp Credit Services even employ onsite academic advisors to make work and education more seamless.

“People say, ‘I don’t have time to get a degree,’ and I believe it’s because of that life-work balance. They’re inundated,” Taylor said. “When you say it’s a certificate, that seems doable. And what’s really nice about it is that it applies to directly to their work, and they start to see improvements in their job. Their employers are impressed.”

Taylor said about 5,000 students are regularly enrolled at Gateway, and the Workforce Solutions Division trains another 3,000 incumbent workers on top of that. There is a 50 percent matriculation from completion of a certificate into a degree program.

“That is one hot number,” she said. “We invite them to finish the degree, but half of them will take advantage of that immediately.”

To entice the traditional college-aged crowd, Taylor said, her department is working to provide a list to high school seniors of all of the employers in the state that pay for educational programs.

“I think we underestimate the power of employer tuition stipends,” she said. The growing student-loan debt load – increasingly being referred to the nation’s the next financial crisis – and the daunting task 18-year-olds face paying for education after high school do influence decisions.

However, Box thinks the cost of tuition at a traditional four-year school is not as much of a deterrent as is the simple fact that finding a job after earning a four-year degree is not as easy as it once was.

“What drives the popularity of our certificates is the jobs that comes with it,” he said. “Employers are looking for a certain skill set, and so we matched up our certificates with these skill sets. … In Kentucky in particular, manufacturing certificates are in high demand, mainly because of the abundance of the auto manufacturing (sector) in our state.”

 Manufacturing builds tech program growth

And the push for more manufacturing jobs in Kentucky is increasing. That is partly thanks to the city government administrations of Louisville and Lexington starting work on a regional economic development initiative, the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement, whose aim is to leverage both cities’ already existing competitiveness in advanced manufacturing. A plan to build on this strength is slated to be ready later this year.

While a manufacturing emphasis is “nothing new” for KCTCS, Box said, there is more and more work in the classroom on the robotics piece of manufacturing, particularly teaching students to troubleshoot robotics. For example, an instructor will program a failure in the system and students must figure out solutions. This and other specialized mechatronics-based jobs are a big focus for Kentucky’s schools today.

About half of KCTCS students are majoring in some sort of technical program, Box said. And completing a technical program, or any other at a school like KCTCS, will likely pay the bills.

“Our current statistics in Kentucky show that our associate’s degree students in our career and technical programs are making an income that is very close to a bachelor’s degree,” Box said. “In Kentucky right now, there’s not a tremendous gap between an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree as an average.

“Presently our (KCTCS system) tuition is $135 a semester credit hour,” he added. “It’s a good investment and a good bargain for higher education compared to a four-year university. When you consider that an entry level certificate would be a six-hour investment, that’s very reasonable.”

Kentucky focuses on five top job sectors for training and employment, Box said. They are:

• Manufacturing

• Healthcare

• Energy

• Transportation and logistics

• Information technology.

With 600 credit program options, KCTCS prepares students for all five sectors. That includes associate degrees, diplomas and certificates.

While the specialized, technical programs are obviously beneficial, Taylor said she also enjoys seeing students pursue paths that can cross multiple industries, like operations management, supervisory leadership and financial perspectives. If a student does not have a specific career path selected, she said, many courses available within certificate or degree tracks are transferable. And if a prospective student is already employed, completing a few classes could equate a raise.

The operations management certificate program that Gateway has in partnership with Citi is a prime example.

“We created a partnership with Citi and made a new certificate called operations management with four courses,” Taylor explained. “If you take eight weeks to do a course, that’s fast; then you’re probably going to complete that certificate in nine months. But the viability of operations management makes you better at your job at Citi, and it’s also a transferable credit.”

Such certificate programs do not lock employees or students into specific jobs or career tracks. Gateway also arranges for students to shadow employees and designs specific career maps based on their interests and the amount of time they can invest. The career maps also help students get a picture of how much money they could make in the future with their new job skills.

Whether it is an 18-year-old high school graduate looking at higher education options, a working parent seeking to get a raise or an ambitious employee looking for a next step, certificate programs are an educational force with which to be reckoned. n

Abby Laub is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]