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Considering the Alternative

by on July 25, 2012 4:24 PM

According to labor statistics, the demand for jobs requiring technical education is outpacing the demand for jobs requiring traditional four-year college degrees. In Pennsylvania, the need for certified, trained technical professionals has never been greater.

In a town with a strong university presence, considering a two-year degree program or a skill-specific certificate can be challenging. Students who do seek alternatives in post-high school education are finding success through schools such as South Hills School of Business and Technology in State College and the Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology in Pleasant Gap.

“It’s tough in a college town to open up other alternatives,” says Susan Brindle, head counselor of the Stage College Area High School counseling staff. Eighty-one percent of graduates from State High attend four-year colleges. “It’s the community expectation.”

“Our job is to point out their strengths academically and their weaknesses academically and what job possibilities are out there,” Brindle explains of counseling students on their post-graduate education decisions.

Seven percent of State High students enroll in institutions with two-year-degree programs. For some students, this choice is an easy one. Others need more assurance. A recent graduate came to Brindle and said, “Are you sure I am making the right decision? All my friends are going to four-year colleges.”

For South Hills student Jess Steele, attending a four-year college was never a consideration. She didn’t know what she wanted to do when she finished high school, so she joined the workforce. After eight years in retail, she decided it was time to start a career. She enrolled at South Hills in the medical-assistant program, a new two-year degree program for the school. She spends most of her class time in a clinical room that is set up like a doctor’s office, with state-of-the-art equipment. “Our school is very hands on — that’s what I love about it,” she says.

She hopes to find a job as a medical assistant in a physician’s office or to work as a phlebotomist in a hospital setting. The odds of her gaining employment in her field are very favorable, based on the school’s statistics — 89 percent of South Hills graduates secure jobs post-graduation. There are close to 6,000 South Hills graduates in Centre County, with degrees in the fields of business, health care, technology, and law.

“You wouldn’t believe how hard our students work,” says David Shaetkin, director of education at South Hills. He explains that students spend 25 hours a week in class compared to 15 or 16 in a university setting. “When we compare our curriculum to other universities, our students are getting the same in two years that other students get in four.”

State High alums Josh Brown and Will Heckman will attest that four-year colleges and big universities are not for everyone. Brown decided to enroll at South Hills, which has 425 students on its State College campus, after discovering that he didn’t like the 300-person classes and limited office hours of his professors at Penn State.

“I prefer a smaller environment where if you don’t understand something you can go and talk to a teacher after class, find them in their office, or e-mail them and get a response that day,” he says. He values the one-on-one interactions and relationships he has developed with faculty.

He just finished his first year in the criminal-justice program and plans to put his degree to work in policing or corrections on the state level.

Like Brown, Heckman also spent some time at Penn State before deciding on South Hills. “I was young and I didn’t know what I wanted out of life,” he says of his exit from the university.

Having grown up in a family in the hotel bar and restaurant business with 10 years of management and service experience under his belt, Heckman was feeling it was time to start his own thing — his goal is to open his own sports bar and grill in town. He is working toward his business-administration management and marketing degree — he came to South Hills to learn how to run a business and to learn how to keep the books. During the course of a social-networking class, he created a blog about Pittsburgh sports called “City of Champions.” He is proud to say he had the commissioner of the NFL and NFL players following him.

He says he wants to give back to the school that has given so much to him. “I offered to come back and help with the marketing and social-media stuff just for fun,” he says.

Many alums come back to speak in classes, including successful local business owner Jessica Dolan. She earned her associate degree in business, management, and marketing from South Hills in 1998. She opened a home-organizing and staging business, Room to Breathe, in 2004.

Around the same time that the organizing and design shows were becoming popular on TV, Dolan had an epiphany. She realized that people were making a living by doing the things that she did naturally. During her whole life she has been teased for her tidiness, constant rearranging, and insistence on having things in the right place.

She built Room to Breathe from concepts she took with her from her South Hills education. She applies key marketing strategies from her course work, and follows the same format of a business plan she created for a class years ago.

Learning the crucial statistic that says most businesses fail in the first three to five years stuck with Dolan. “I promised I would stick with it for five, and reassess — now here I am going strong and bigger than ever,” she says.

Because she didn’t know what she wanted to do when she finished high school, Dolan was given the hard line from her parents. They said, “If you don’t go to school, you need to find a place to live,” words which may sound familiar to many. Dolan knew that a four-year college wasn’t for her — and she found an alternative that, in her words, allowed her to figure out the direction her life was supposed to take.

“Why take four years to get it done, when I can do it in two?” says recent Bald Eagle High School graduate Kristine Chiodo. She enrolled at South Hills for the legal-assistant program — she likes research and has had some experience in the field through her time at the Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology.

Like other high school students from Bald Eagle, Bellefonte, and Penns Valley, Chiodo had the opportunity to spend half of her school day at CPI, where students can choose from close to 20 areas of study ranging from precision machine technology to culinary arts. She participated in the protective-services program in which students learn basic skills in police science, fire science, and emergency medicine. In addition to this program, she chose to take a Dale Carnegie course, which she says proved to be of great value to her growth as a shy student. “It was all about getting you out of your shell and being able to talk to people without being nervous,” she explains of the course. “I’m able to talk with people now.”

MaryAnn Volders, director of the secondary-education programs at CPI, works to make students aware of technical education and career fields at an early age. This fall, she hopes to reach out to middle school students in an effort to get them thinking about their programs for high school — enrollment from high schools was down this year, falling from 410 to 370.

“Students need to find a niche,” Volders says. For many, sitting through seven or eight periods a day in the traditional classroom is not what they need. “They come here and they work with their hands — they do well here. They are skilled when they leave.”

According to the test scores through the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute, 86 percent of CPI students score in the advanced or competent range. The tests are written and hands on, conducted by industry representatives who come in to test in specific areas.

For some students, a skills certificate with high test scores is enough to get them into a job post-high school. Other students, such as recent CPI graduate Katherine Purnell, go on to pursue more education in their fields of study.

“I am thinking about what’s best long term,” says Purnell, who can see herself designing business logos or laying out magazine spreads in her future. She currently does freelance photography. She was the recipient of the most outstanding student award for the graphic-design and publishing-technology program at CPI. She also earned the John Wayne Memorial Media Arts Scholarship from Bellefonte High School.

Job-placement statistics played a huge role in her decision to enroll in a four-year bachelor’s degree in graphic-design program at Penn Technical College in Williamsport. After visiting the school, she was impressed by the technology and examples of student works on display. The small class sizes also were appealing.

She is very thankful for her experience and CPI, and realizes that not all kids have this kind of opportunity. “Not all people take tech school seriously,” she says, “but it really prepared me for college.”

Despite the rising costs of education for the American family, there is still the need to continue education beyond high school.

Just this spring, Halliburton, one of the world’s largest oil-field-service companies, came to CPI looking to hire 20 diesel technicians. A job in this field starts in the $40,000 range and has the potential to reach into the $70,000 range over time. It takes only 11 months to gain the necessary training and licenses to become a diesel tech. Yet this year, CPI couldn’t fill Halliburton’s request.

“They are searching hard for these technicians,” says Taylor. “We’d like to help them meet that need.”

Employers today are looking for specialized skill sets. Taylor explains that CPI is regularly updating their certificate programs to match the needs of the high-demand occupations serving Central Pennsylvania. It is their mission to look at what the industry recognizes as the highest credential and then integrate it into their program.

The nursing program at CPI always has a huge waiting list. The one-year program of 1,560 hours is the longest offered by the school and has the highest rates of job placement. The commercial-drivers-license program is a short two-month program that can lead a driver to a $50,000 annual salary in today’s road and gas industry. CPI also is working to offer two-year-degree programs to align with current courses.

Learners of all ages, high school and beyond, are finding programs to meet their needs at CPI. Forrest Kear has been a truck driver for most of his professional career. At 45 years old, he was looking for a way to fulfill a childhood dream and discovered CPI’s heavy-equipment-operations program. “I got hired in a new job before I even graduated,” he says.

He is now working for Hawbaker Heavy Construction Services, driving a tri-axel truck. He does construction on the side and hopes to do more heavy-equipment operations in the future with Hawbaker.

Taylor credits the board at CPI and the school districts for being forward thinking in looking for ways to better serve the community.

“They see the need for quality technical education,” he says. “The time is right to offer accessible, affordable, and accredited education.”



Carolyne Meehan is a writer and educator. She lives in State College with her husband and two young boys.
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