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Community colleges help retrain workers, upgrade skills

Area schools adjust courses to meet new employment needs

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Brian Taggart graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz with a degree in marine biology but found his career options were limited, so he enrolled in MiraCosta College’s biotech program, learning lab skills and the latest industry technology.

When he completed the program, he found a job at Stemgent, a biotech firm with offices in San Diego. He is one of many San Diegans who has turned to local community colleges to help retool their careers when they found themselves at a crossroads or with limited job options.

Community colleges have seen a surge in enrollment since the Great Recession began, despite cutbacks in course offerings due to budget constraints.

Iraq and Afghanistan military veterans returning to civilian life comprise a significant portion of students enrolled in colleges like MiraCosta, which has seen a 150 percent increase in veteran enrollment over the last 10 years. Out of more than 14,000 full- and part-time students, veterans and veteran dependents make up about 2,800.

Brian Taggart has a degree in marine biology from University of California, Santa Cruz. When he moved to San Diego he found his career options limited, so he enrolled in MiraCosta’s biotechnology program. After graduating, he secured a job at Stemgent, a local biotech company. Photo by Viera Photography, courtesy of MiraCosta College

“We have been designated a military friendly college,” said Francisco Rodriguez, president of MiraCosta College. “We are very conscious about our responsibilities to help transition military veterans to civilian life, so we’ve been very intentional in our approach to serve them.”

Another interesting statistic shows that nearly 10 percent of students enrolling in local community college programs typically already have a bachelor’s or advanced degree. This trend is more prevalent in career tracks like nursing and biotechnology, high-growth fields that attract people whose careers are stagnating in other industries.

MiraCosta offers a comprehensive program in biotechnology and biofuels, tapping a growing market for skills in lab work, research and management, with programs designed by working scientists.

Other in-demand fields that attract adult reentry students include hybrid automotive technology, fitness trainers, massage therapists, tax accounting and computer science.

Grossmont College offers a noted program in allied health fields, like cardiovascular technology, that have been a big draw.

“We have seen adult reentry people enroll in cardiovascular technology, respiratory therapy, occupational therapy, so health and nursing have been very popular,” said Nancy Davis, supervisor of student employment services and senior counselor with the adult reentry program at Grossmont College. “We started noticing the interest in 2009 when the recession was very deep and the adults returned to school as they got laid-off.”

Many local community colleges have tailored their courses to help veterans like Thomas Sudnick (above) adapt to civilian life. Sudnick recently graduated from MiraCosta College and transferred to California State University, San Marcos. Photo courtesy of MiraCosta College

Davis has seen a big jump in enrollment through the adult reentry program each semester, with 85 percent of all students for the current semester enrolled through the training program.

Grossmont-Cuyamaca College District is one of several community colleges that has benefitted from Proposition 30, tapping additional state funding to add 300 more course offerings and enroll more than 1,000 additional students.

“We are very excited, it gave us a little bit of light,” Davis said.

Susan Esparza, student services specialist with Grossmont, said the college has seen adults from a wide variety of fields find their way back to college, but a high percentage tend to be from the construction and real estate industries — two fields that were hit hard during the recession.

Grossmont’s adult reentry program requires that students be at least 25 years old before enrolling.

This is not a new trend however. Community colleges have always attracted adults looking to pick up particular skills.

Davis recalled how, in the 1970s and ‘80s, it was a magnet for women entering the work force for the first time and those newly divorced. Vietnam veterans also used community colleges to assimilate back into civilian careers.

“Then the paradigm changed, today it’s so their skills don’t become obsolete,” Davis said.

As for why community colleges are preferred over universities for such people, MiraCosta’s Rodriguez has an explanation.

“First, we’re locally available — our placement makes it convenient. Secondly, our hybrid courses with online programs offer flexibility, especially for working professionals. Thirdly, the cost. If you look at the cost, for the quality education that you receive, it’s definitely a value proposition,” he said.

“We’re also able to respond to trends and needs in the economy very quickly, such as with the biotech program or the homeland security program, so we can turn programs around quickly.”

And the community colleges have all stepped up to the plate to keep pace with the uptick in demand in the allied health fields, from nursing to therapy and gerontology.

MiraCosta sends its nursing students for clinical training to Tri-City Medical Center and Palomar Pomerado Hospital before helping them find jobs.

Health, clean technology, transportation and biotechnology continue to be the hot areas for adults looking to retool their careers or get a promotion.

“People are ‘recareering’ and looking for high-growth fields and retraining to get an edge. They can get it here in half the time that it would take at a university,” Rodriguez said. “People in college transfer tracks are becoming blurred with people who are looking at job-ready skills, so it’s a good trend.”

-Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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