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Strategic Budget Advisory Committee (SBAC)
Strategic Budget Advisory Committee

Colleges See Rush to Retrain

February 9, 2009

Workers returning to school to brush up, learn new skills

By Myung Oak Kim - Rocky Mountain News

James Cox, of Littleton, has a business degree and has worked at a variety of corporate jobs over the years.

These days, Cox wears purple scrubs, taking nursing classes during the day at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton. At night, he manages a restaurant to pay the bills until he finishes school.

Nursing jobs, said the 36-year- old, are "recession-proof" because of a longstanding shortage. "Stability is a big thing," Cox said.

It's a big thing for a lot of people, particularly during the recession. Since the economy began to tank last year, scores of adults - including many who have been laid-off - are going back to college to brush up on their skills or learn new ones.

Their goal: a steady paycheck.

Some are applying to graduate school to ride out the recession. But many can't afford that option, in either time or money. So they're enrolling in college programs that can quickly get them back into the work force.

Career-oriented courses

That's one reason why community colleges, especially, are seeing a spike in enrollment. About 11 percent more students enrolled last month at the 13 schools that make up the Colorado Community College System compared with the same time a year ago.

Many community college courses are career-oriented and aimed at professions that are hiring instead of firing - health care, education and certain financial industries among them.

Another area of growth is the newly coined green-collar industry - with jobs such as solar energy panel installation, consulting on ways to make buildings more energy efficient and others that haven't been invented yet.

"There are some industries that are expanding and we can very quickly get people . . . the skills they need to turn around and make a decent standard of living," said Nancy McCallin, president of the community college system.

McCallin foresees enrollment growth continuing for at least another year, and possibly two.

"When the economy starts going south, we end up having a lot of students coming to us," she said.

Metropolitan State College of Denver has seen a 6.9 percent increase in enrollment compared with this time a year ago, with heavier interest in business and health care programs, as well as sports science, officials said.

Other four-year colleges also are seeing enrollment spikes tied to job demand.

At the University of Northern Colorado, for example, the special education department has grown almost 13 percent in the last two years.

Special ed teachers are in high demand - so high that at the yearly career fair in March, school districts "come with contracts in hand and signing bonuses," said Harvey Rude, director of the university's school of special education.

Nursing programs at Metro State and elsewhere are also in high demand, with some students waiting three years just to get in.

Accounting's hot

And number crunching is a popular major. Rick Crosser, chairman of the accounting department at Metro State, said enrollment grew 21 percent in upper-level classes last year.

Crosser said there aren't many accounting jobs at the moment, but he expects positions to open up when the economy rebounds.

In Crosser's accounting ethics class, seven of the 12 students have returned to school after being in the work force.

One of them, Komil Ganiyev, was laid off in early January as a financial adviser in Denver.

The 27-year-old is aiming for his Certified Public Accountant license.

That's also the plan of his classmates, who hope the license will boost their chances of getting jobs down the line.

Anna Gonce, of Littleton, chose her college major after studying help wanted ads in the newspaper.

"I want to be able to work," said the 24-year-old Metro accounting student.

But some students, shell shocked by layoffs, aren't sure what to do. The recession has caused a stampede for career advise, including on college campuses.

"My phone was ringing off the hook in January," said Jan McLees, the only full-time career counselor at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton.

"The panic factor started to rise last fall," said Ranee Boyd Tomlin, a part-time career counselor at Arapahoe Community College. "We had a lot of folks who were coming in nearing emotional crisis because they had lost jobs or were about to lose a job."

Sometimes she sees people who were laid off only hours earlier.

Sense of urgency

Tomlin and McLees now keep handouts on how to cope emotionally with a job loss.

The school offers a monthly six-hour class on careers, open to the public for a fee.

The one held in January drew 17 people - more than double the normal attendance.

Bert Glandon, president of Arapahoe Community College, said he's never seen such a severe recession in his 40-plus years in higher education.

He said the economic troubles create a greater sense of urgency to tailor classes to the needs of the work force.

"We can't sit in committee and plan this out for the next four months," Glandon said.

A growing number of Coloradans are picking college courses with good job prospects.

Dane Ellingson

  • Age: 37
  • Home: Boulder
  • Area of study: Paralegal

Ellingson worked as a carpenter for a dozen years and developed a passion for environmentally friendly home building. But there wasn't much work, so he got a job last year making sushi at a Japanese restaurant in Boulder.

"The stock market tanked, and three weeks later I got laid off," he said.

Ellingson thought about becoming a lawyer, but law school would keep him out of the job market for too long.

"I've got a family, and I need to be making money," he said.

So he enrolled in paralegal classes at Arapahoe Community College. That way, he can get his paralegal certificate in about a year, get a job and then apply to law school.

Ellingson is keeping his fingers crossed that paralegal work will remain in demand and that he's on a more stable career track. "It's a plan. I don't know if it'll work."

Jason Lomas

  • Age: 40
  • Home: Aurora
  • Area of study: Pharmacy technician

Lomas panicked after getting laid off from his computer operator job last October.

"I went online and I put my resume out with everything and everybody."

The response: nothing.

Lomas has a high school diploma and had worked in warehousing and trouble-shooting computers. His wife, who is going to college to become a teacher, learned about job opportunities in the health care industry from a friend who works as a recruiter.

Lomas found out about Arapahoe Community College's six-month program for pharmacy technicians. He's confident he'll find a job after finishing. "I said, 'Wow. I can complete this and I've got a job - a job for life.' "

Sophia Morton

  • Age: 21
  • Home: Evans
  • Area of study: Special education

Morton got a job offer in early December, two days before she graduated from the University of Northern Colorado with a bachelor's degree in special education.

She decided to become a special education teacher at age 7 after spending time with her cousin, who has autism and severe mental disabilities.

She chose to attend UNC because its program is known around the country and can be completed in less time than those at other universities.

Morton is working at Kinard Junior High School in Fort Collins, a sought- after school district among teachers.

The pay is modest, but the benefits are great and Morton feels fortunate that special education teachers are in high demand.

"Right now, I couldn't have been more grateful that I chose this field."

Dwight Lenox

  • Age: 37
  • Home: Littleton
  • Area of study: Nursing

Many of Lenox's classmates in the nursing program at Arapahoe Community College had to wait three years to start classes, in part because there's not enough teachers.

But he enrolled in a few months through a program with his employer, Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree.

Lenox prepares rooms and patients for operations. He decided to go into nursing so that he could work more with patients.

And the job security is a huge draw.

"Have you ever seen a nurse get laid off?" he asked.

Lenox is confident he'll find a job as soon as he finishes school.

"I've gone on Web sites, and there are lists upon lists of RN jobs."

© Rocky Mountain News