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The changing ABCs of vocational education.

Strong demand for new technical skills and constant change in many trades and professions create opportunities for Alaska's proprietary vocational training centers.

Alaska's vocational schools, like their counterparts in the Lower 48, have been trying to rid themselves of a stigma that has plagued them for years. Dispelling myths about technical schools' quality of education has been just as difficult as mending the industry's reputation for matchbook-cover marketing and occasional tuition scandals.

But today, many jobs are relying more and more on high-tech skills. The increased demand for specialized career training that a vocational school can provide is helping to add new shine to tarnished images.

"Between 60 percent and 85 percent of the work force is technically trained," points out Jennifer Deitz, president of The Travel Academy of Anchorage and of the trade organization Alaska Association of Private Career Educators. "Take a look around you at who you deal with on a daily basis -- your auto mechanic, your dental hygienist, your VCR or TV repairman, your hair stylist, your travel agent. These are all professional people who have been intensely trained for specific professional jobs."

Overall, the vocational education industry in Alaska is healthy, according to reports from schools across the state. Alaska's 55 proprietary schools, or for-profit career education schools, offer classroom and hands-on training for about 2,000 Alaskans annually in disciplines ranging from hair styling to asbestos removal as well as plenty of accounting and computer skills training.

In general, enrollments are climbing. Other bright spots are the availability of plenty of qualified teachers to staff the schools and of Alaska student loans and federal funding to finance educations. In the evolving field of vocational education, constant curriculum modifications are required to reflect changes in the corresponding industry, and schools must provide up-to-date equipment to prepare students properly and to remain competitive.

For those vocational schools that turn out consistently qualified workers, the rewards are many. Alaskan companies that have hired vocational graduates in the past, usually come back to the same school to fill openings, says Deitz, whose Travel Academy trains about 400 people a year for travel-industry careers ranging from aircraft dispatchers to resort management.

A good placement record also helps schools market their course offerings to students. With the job market as tight as it is, job contenders need every possible advantage to give them winning edges.

Not everyone is geared for college, says Jerry Lewis, executive director of the Governor's Council on Vocational Education. "Recent statistics point out that only about 30 percent of high school graduates go on to a university. That leaves 70 percent ready for work or for training programs. With odds like that, we have to supply a vocational track as well as an academic track for those who want it," he explains.

Educational visionary John Gardner, secretary of education during the Eisenhower administration, once said that the society that does not pay equal attention to the plumber and the philosopher will soon find that neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

Single parents, mid-life career changers, new graduates and workers re-entering the work force after raising families make up the blend of today's vocational education rosters. By 1995, 70 percent of new jobs will require some form of postsecondary education, with only 20 percent requiring a bachelor's degree, according to statistics from the Commission on the Skills of the American Work Force, an arm of the National Center for Education and the Economy in Rochester, N.Y.

Capitalizing on Change. Times change, the job market changes, and so do the skills needed for those jobs. Bartenders are a prime example. A bartender these days no longer can succeed by simply knowing how to mix a dry martini or frozen margarita.

"We teach our students about responsible drinking and serving," says Stan Austin, president of the Alaska Professional Bartending School in Anchorage. "Our graduates are professionals. They take our courses on bartending and bartender management, as well as on first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol effects, plus a six-hour program called Bartenders Against Drunk Drivers (BADD)."

Austin has geared the school curriculum to promoting safety and responsibility in the beverage industry. "Bartenders are doing out a legal drug, and they'd better know how to do that job responsibly. A druggist needs six years of education to fill prescriptions, and a barber needs 2,000 hours to get a license to cut hair. Why should we be any easier on someone tending bar?" he asks.

Vocational education also must meet the needs of the ever-changing job market. Employers are looking for a highly skilled worker who can face on-the-job challenges with confidence. According to Randy Pollock, director of SST Travel Schools of Alaska in Anchorage, that school's enrollment is up about 50 percent from last year. He says companies are hiring less often off the street and more often through vocational schools. "Employers just don't have the energy, money or time to devote to training or re-training employees for the job," he explains.

Nationwide, about 6,000 trade schools help train and mold students of all ages into flexible workers for the changing marketplace. Roughly 1.6 million people spent about $4,500 each at vocational and trade schools in 1991, according to recent statistics supplied by JBL Associates, a consulting firm in Bethesda, Md., that focuses on higher education. That's a 151 percent increase from the 600,000 high school and older students who attended vocational education schools in 1980.

John Melvin, owner and chief executive officer of Jon Anthony's Academy of Hair Styling in Anchorage, reports that his salons are "constantly changing to keep pace with the industry." He says enrollment in his school increased slightly from 1990 to 1991, but overall, hair design schools are experiencing a slump nationwide.

Explains Melvin: "The salon industry failed to have a realistic plan to deal with the labor force. Industrywide, there was no basic medical plan, life insurance, vacation package or child-care options, which hurt the industry as a whole." So some potential stylists set their sights on learning computer skills instead, he says.

Although vocational schools can't guarantee a job once a student finishes a program, most vocational schools in Alaska tout at least a 90 percent job placement rate. And many who attend vocational schools find themselves continuing in higher education either in vocational or university environments.

Many of Alaska's vocational schools, such as Computer Training Skills of Anchorage, formerly Clerical Training Skills, cater courses and schedules to the students. Michelle McGuire, vice president of the institute, reports that morning and afternoon sessions, each running five and one-half hours, have not only cut students' day-care costs, but have reduced overall absenteeism by allowing students to attend an alternate session, when needed.

Teaching keeps McGuire in daily contact with her 60 students per 21-week computer skills session. She calls her curriculum "administrative boot camp" and includes interpersonal skills along with computer training. She's found that a good experience in a technical school has spurred students to pursue more education. "I've seen students, who've had trouble with math in the past, get straight A's in our bookkeeping course. Seeing what math can do really helps motivate students," McGuire adds.

Practically every business has been influenced by the computer industry -- from hair imaging to accounting, says Andrew Schneider, director of Alaska Computer Institute of Anchorage. "We offer a student a nationally accredited school program of six months. A comparable program at a college may take as long as two years. Our goal is to get students through school faster and get a job that much quicker," he adds.

John Lohse, administrative director for Seward-based Alaska Vocational Technical Center, sees vocational education providing "good, solid basic skills" for "industry-specific jobs." Founded in 1969 and a division of the Alaska Department of Education, AVTEC offers both short- and long-term programs for about 1,800 students a year in more than 100 classes. Curriculums cover almost every discipline from cooking and baking to forestry.

Determining Demand. Lohse says school enrollment numbers historically have reflected fluctuations in the economy. The tighter the job market, the higher the enrollment for honing up on new skills, refresher courses or new careers. "People are watching the economy. School becomes a safe haven when the economy is down," he explains.

Both the state's vocational schools and the Alaska student loan program have weathered turbulent times. In 1987, there were 78 proprietary vocational schools in Alaska. Today, 55 career education schools and 131 postsecondary institutions and programs are authorized to operate in the state.

During Alaska's oil boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s, funds for Alaska student loans were as abundant as the crude flowing through the trans-Alaska pipeline, and the loan terms were generous. For instance, the unemployed not only were given funds to pay for career training, but also received cash for room and board during the training period. As an added incentive, those borrowers who stayed in Alaska for six years after schooling was completed were entitled to a break -- 50 percent of their loans was "forgiven."

But by 1987, funding for school loans had been pared, ceilings on amounts borrowed had been fixed, interest rates had risen, and there just wasn't any forgiveness to go around. In the 1984-85 school year, $75 million was divided among 17,000 students; in 1990-91, $54 million was loaned to 13,000 students, according to figures provided by the Postsecondary Commission's Allan Barnes. About 20 percent of these monies find their way into vocational schools' coffers.

Proprietary vocational schools, unlike public institutions that are subsidized with federal funds, depend largely on student loans to fund tuition for revenues. The proprietary school's aim is to earn profits through student enrollment, unlike private, non-profit institutions such as Alaska Pacific University and Sheldon Jackson College. And the hefty tuition for a proprietary school can be a drawback, unless loans are available.

Back in July 1986, the Alaska Legislature instituted a special qualification for proprietary schools: Namely, the school must have been operating in Alaska for at least two years before becoming eligible for student loan approval. This mandate, along with stringent criteria for licensing and authorization by the Postsecondary Commission, was responsible for weeding out some of the fly-by-night enterprises that whispered promises too good to be true. And some certainly were. When Gordon's Aviation folded, it took about $300,000 in student loan monies with it.

Even when a proprietor is running a profitable, top-notch school, state regulations, as well as "bad press" from a fly-by-night outfit, can cause fallout. "We're all beaten with the same stick," says Jon Anthony's Melvin. But he considers Alaska's vocational industry "one of the finest efforts in the United States, if not the finest." He credits the Alaska student loan program with boosting education opportunities through the ease of securing loans on a non-need, economic base for those Alaskan residents who want them.

The Alaska Association of Private Career Educators, formerly the Alaska Private Schools Association, was founded in 1985 as a consortium of private and proprietary schools. The organization provides a forum for focusing on protecting the rights and interests of career educators, for discussing Alaska student loan regulation, and for providing input into school budget programs and school licensing.

Deitz, the association's president, says education is evolving. "We can no longer adhere to the Thomas Jefferson philosophy of education as being 'only for the elite,'" she adds.

"People and businesses are changing and we need to meet those needs. Mom and Dad may want their son to attend a university, but maybe the son doesn't want to go. Maybe the son wants to go to a technical school, where he'll be educated for his career, specifically with the skills he'll need. Giving him the option for career education must be available."

Private postsecondary schools provide about one-half of the technically skilled entry-level workers entering the work force annually. And clearly, in light of the business opportunities presented to institutes that can meet labor needs, vocational schools will continue to adapt to satisfy the demands of an increasingly high-tech society. "We're not providing a quick-fix, we're here to stay," says Clerical Training Skills' McGuire.

Career Guide For Alaskan Job-Seekers

Contemplating a mid-life career change? Preparing to enter or re-enter the business world, or know someone who is? To provide direction and helpful advice, the Alaska Department of Labor has recently published its fifth edition of the Alaska Career Guide -- Your Key to the Future.

One of the chapters in this 104-page booklet details the advantages of vocational education and offers a questionnaire to pique the curiosity of interested readers and potential technical education students. It asks: "Do you prefer learning through activities and projects rather than learning through reading books?" or "Would you be able to learn reading and math skills more easily if you could see how people use those skills in their work?" If you answered "yes" to both of those questions, a vocational school may be your ticket to success.

Vocational education can begin in high school for today's youth interested in specific job training. But most vocational students don't stop there. "About 61 percent of vocational education graduates enroll in college or choose other postsecondary training," according to Karen Ryals in an article on vocational-technical education in the Alaska Career Guide.

A primer for the neophyte to the business world, the booklet lists more than 280 occupation descriptions. In the "Table of Occupations" section are job descriptions and ratings of the outlook for job opportunities. The table also provides current salary ranges, the number of Alaskans employed in the field, suggested training courses, related occupations and a synopsis of hiring practices.

For overall employment services, the state's employment centers offer the use of the Alaska Career Information System computer software for help and direction on career paths, training programs and tuition assistance. Or for youths and adults who don't have the necessary skills to find and keep a job, the federal Job Training Partnership Act programs can be tapped to upgrade current skills and launch new careers.

The Alaska Career Guide also lists more than 100 education and vocational training sites in Alaska with addresses and phone numbers. Rounding out the catalog's offerings are discussions of occupations of the future, state job services, what's hot and what's not in career opportunities, Native employment networks, the ins and outs of financial aid, and how to succeed in an interview.

The booklet is available in libraries, job service offices, schools, legislative information offices and by writing to Alaska Department of Labor, Research and Analysis Section, P.O. Box 25501, Juneau, AK 99802-5501, or by calling 465-4500.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Brynko, B.L.
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Feb 1, 1992
Previous Article:Profiles of Barrow business people.
Next Article:Oil industry's troubled waters.

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