Road To Recovery: Career Colleges Thrive In Uncertain Job Environment

It has been widely reported that California’s cash-strapped community colleges and public universities are turning away eligible students because of budget cuts. But there’s another sector of higher education faring much better. Enrollment at for-profit career colleges in the state is booming. Ten career colleges have campus sites in Sacramento.

I recently visited the Sacramento campus of Western Career College where Michelle Jowers was teaching a class in Massage Therapy. The day’s lesson: hot stone massage. Jowers slides a black stone across a student’s leg while tapping the rock with another black stone.

"This is a vibrating technique with stones. And what it is, is it settles the nervous system"

One of the students in this class is Erika Rodriguez — a petite woman in her 30s with short black hair and an upbeat attitude.

"We’re doing fun stuff today!"

Rodriguez used to work as a manager for Target. The mother of three was with the retail giant for a decade. But that all changed in April of last year.

“They let me go, dumped me. So I gave myself a week to cry and then I said ‘okay, this is one of those crossroads in life, we all have them.’”

Rodriguez is among the hundreds-of-thousands of Americans laid off because of downsizing in the retail industry. Did she see it coming?

“No. I was a lifer and I wanted to become an executive. That was my master plan.”

Losing her job was devastating at the time…but Rodriguez says ultimately it gave her the impetus to pursue a lifelong interest in massage therapy.

“My getting fired was a blessing. And people look at me like ‘she’s lost it.’ But no, I am so grateful because that is the only way I would be here today.”

Rodriguez chose this vocational school over a community college because she says the hours are convenient and she’ll be able to get her certificate in less than a year. She’s one of many new students for instructor Michelle Jowers…who says enrollment for her classes has more than doubled.

“When I started here I only had 30 students. I now have 70. We originally only had a mid-day and an evening class. Now we have an early morning (class).”

And Jowers hasn’t even been teaching at Western Career College that long…less than a year.

She used to run her own practice specializing in chronic pain. She’s teaching here full-time now.

Sue Smith: “We’ve hired a lot more instructors and we’ve put a lot more staff into place.”

Sue Smith is executive director of Western’s Sacramento campus. They offer certificates in the healthcare field from registered nursing to dental hygiene as well as job placement services. She says they’ve hired 20 new employees since last September to serve a booming student body that has grown by 25% in the past 15-months.

“Right now we’re seeing a lot of people come back getting retrained. We see a different group of students coming to find a new career, a little bit older.”

And it’s the same story across the country. Harris Miller is president of the Career College Association based in Washington DC. He says the industry is growing by 20% a year. And that career colleges are training workers who will propel the region out of the recession.

“One of the reasons we are in a recession is because of a skills mismatch. A mismatch between the skills employers are expecting and what many prospective employees have. Where are we going to get the ability to expand the population? Through the career college sector.”

But critics say career colleges are too limited in scope. Sacramento State President Alexander Gonzalez touched on the issue during his annual address in January. He was trying to bolster the morale of faculty and staff dealing with furloughs and budget cuts. Gonzalez talked about the competition facing the campus.

“It’s National, it’s Phoenix, it’s Chapman, it’s Cash-and-Carry U, it’s all these different things that are out there. If we’re going to be true, and I didn’t mean it disparagingly, we have a model of education that’s a very traditional one based in the liberal arts, based in the conviction that our students will learn and be better citizens, not just technicians.”

Those in the career college industry make no apologies for turning out highly-trained technicians. Scott Lewis heads the University of Phoenix campus in Sacramento.

“Students that can go to a traditional four year school and get the liberal arts and the activities, the football games and all that, we’re not out there trying to persuade those individuals to come to the University of Phoenix. We’re looking for that student that may have a family and can’t go to a full-time traditional school.”

For-profit schools are more expensive than many public colleges. And they see more student loan defaults, according to federal statistics. Another concern for critics like Lauren Asher of the student advocacy group Institute for College Access and Success…is job placement.

“It’s very difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff because there isn’t enough consumer information out there that lets people get a feel for whether those degrees are really going to translate into real and better jobs.”

The impact for-profit career colleges will have on shaping the region’s future labor force has yet to be seen. But one thing is clear…they are boosting the current workforce. According to state employment figures, private educational services added 800 jobs in the Sacramento area over the past year.

Meanwhile, Western Career College student Erika Rodriguez is optimistic about her return to the job market as a massage therapist.

“I feel wonderful. I want to see what is out there in this particular field. Ultimately the goal is to have my own practice.”

Rodriguez will be on her way to reaching that goal in October when she’s scheduled to graduate.


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