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VOL. 127 | NO. 89 | Monday, May 07, 2012

‘Different Avenue’

Vocational-technical schools experience growth as learning alternative

By DAVID ROYER

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Rudy Williams always knew she wanted to work in a hospital, but after a short stint in community college and a few years in the workforce, the path to her goal was looking like a long haul.

Cosmetology program director Kim Williams gives advice to a student applying spiral curls at Vatterott Career College’s Appling Farms campus.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

So a little more than a year ago, she gave it another try, enrolling in the 60-week medical assisting program at Vatterott Career College’s campus near her home in Bartlett. Now, she’s getting ready for an externship in a local clinic that could lead to a job in her field.

“I plan on being in a hospital setting in the next five years,” she said, taking a break after a hands-on venipuncture lesson at Vatterott’s classroom clinic.

As recent graduates of four-year colleges face dim job prospects, thousands of students in the Memphis area have turned to vocational and technical schools, training for careers in cutting-edge medical and information technology fields, as well as reliable trades such as welding and HVAC repair.

Many of these vocational schools boast job placement rates of 70 percent to 100 percent for graduates in some skill areas. By contrast, 53.6 percent of traditional college graduates younger than 25 were unemployed or underemployed last year, and median wages for bachelor’s degree holders have declined since 2000, according to an Associated Press analysis.

“Its nice when people are calling you looking for your students, and that’s what we have,” said Ralph Fitzgerald, director of Delta Technical College, which opened its Horn Lake campus in 2004 and last year began recruiting and advertising in Tennessee. “Everybody’s not meant to go to a four-year college and we’re just a different avenue.”

As students explore their alternatives, many of the region’s vocational schools are experiencing growth.

The number of private educational institutions in West Tennessee, from broad-based career colleges to industry-specific training schools, has more than doubled in the past decade from 13 to 30, said Christina Coleman, director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s division of post-secondary school authorization. That number does not include state schools, community colleges and nonprofits.

Vatterott’s Appling Farms campus, where Williams attends classes, opened with 13 students in 2008 but graduated 479 last year. The school’s larger Dividend Drive campus nearly doubled its graduating class to 1,159 during the same period.

While these schools often rely on television and print advertising to attract mid-career students, campus directors say word-of-mouth referrals draw the largest number of students.

“We just believe that if we provide excellent education, students will just tell friends and family and then we will continue to grow,” said Adrena Jackson, director of National College of Business and Technology’s Bartlett campus, where the number of graduates almost doubled to 408 between 2008 and 2011.

Nathaniel McGee, associate program director, top, and instructor Ronnie Kimble, right, review the parts of a diesel Volvo engine in a Diesel Mechanic Basics class at Vatterott Career College’s Appling Farms campus.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Instruction at these schools is steered by the needs of local industries, and in Memphis, health care is the main driver.

At the Memphis-area campuses of Remington College, Concorde Career College and National College, a majority of graduates in 2011 received training in medical, dental, pharmacy or therapy occupations, according to data reported to the state. Vatterott’s Appling Farms campus will add two new degrees, a 40-week medical assistant program and 70-week medical associate program, in response to industry needs and students’ demands.

Memphis’ role as a distribution hub also guides instruction. Graduates of Vatterott’s diesel mechanic program made up two-thirds of the school’s students in 2011 and the school will begin offering a commercial driver’s license program in October.

Meanwhile, National College’s Memphis campus offers an associate’s degree in logistics and supply chain management. The campus will move from Lamar Avenue to Perkins Road and Interstate 240 at the end of this year.

Even as new technology spurs changes in industry needs, the demand for skilled workers in some venerable occupations remains strong.

MooreTech, the William R. Moore College of Technology, opened in Midtown in 1939. Following 10 years of declining enrollment, it recently boosted its enrollment to nearly 200.

The nonprofit technical college reports an 81 percent overall job placement rate, and 100 percent placement for graduates of its machine shop and industrial electricity/plant maintenance programs.

The school’s most popular program is HVAC maintenance – the same as it was in the late-1960s, said Don Smith, director and chief administrative officer.

MooreTech board president John Malmo said vocational training in a field that’s in demand offers students a better chance at reliable employment with good wages than a liberal arts degree.

“It’s easier to sue somebody than get your air conditioner repaired during the summer,” Malmo said in an email. “America needs men and women who are trained to keep the country running, to repair the nation’s machinery. And millions of men and women will achieve more personal success in vocational education than in liberal arts or other, so-called white-collar professions.”

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