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Community Colleges Offer Cheaper Alternative to Grad School

Schools offering alternatives to graduate degrees help get workers where employers need them.

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When the paper mill in Franklin, Va., closed in mid-2010, Al Faison lost the job he'd held for 25 years, and the future suddenly didn't seem so bright. "I didn't have a lot of choices," says Faison, 47, whose responsibility had been to prepare orders to customer specifications. While he could have looked for work at a nearby shipyard, without transferable skills he would have had to start at the bottom in a more physically demanding job. "I wasn't sure I could keep pace with that into the future," he says.

Today, while he receives special federal unemployment benefits for people who have lost jobs to foreign trade, he is in the sixth semester of a three-year retraining program in healthcare—radiography—and is scheduled to graduate from Tidewater Community College in May 2013.

"I was looking for a marketable skill set that I could carry anywhere, and that would not have the same potential as manufacturing to be outsourced overseas," says Faison, who is currently working a clinical rotation as an X-ray technologist at Maryview Medical Center in Portsmouth, a hospital affiliated with Tidewater. "If I hadn't had Tidewater Community College, I don't know what I would have done."

[See 7 tips for community college success.]

Heading back to campus for a costly graduate degree isn't the only way—or necessarily the best way—to switch direction in an uncertain job market. Providing a solution for men and women like Faison, who want to change careers or add or upgrade skills, has long been the bread and butter of the nation's community colleges, says Norma Kent, a senior vice president of the 1,200-member American Association of Community Colleges.

"They can tailor their curricula and classes to local needs, whether it's equine studies in Kentucky, turf management in North Carolina where there are a lot of golf courses, or training John Deere technicians in Nebraska," she says. San Jacinto College in Houston recently began offering "Introduction to Ships and Shipping" to train workers for the area's expanding international shipping industry.

That's the kind of program federal officials had in mind when, in September 2011, they announced almost $500 million in grants to community colleges. This first round of 32 grants was part of a four-year, $2 billion program to help unemployed and displaced workers find new jobs in their local economies. Many of the grant proposals depend on a consortium of community colleges working in partnership with local employers to develop programs that meet specific needs.

Northland Community and Technical College in Minnesota, for example, received $4.8 million to train workers in analyzing images transmitted by unmanned aircraft, the fastest-growing technology in aviation. "This initiative is about providing access to training that leads to real jobs," Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said in a statement.

Tidewater received one of the largest grants—$24.1 million—to head a consortium of 23 Virginia community colleges focusing on health sciences education. "We want to connect the dots between where the healthcare industry is going and what kind of workforce is going to be needed," says Deborah DiCroce, outgoing president of Tidewater.

One of the planned strategies is to create a statewide E-Health Career Studies Certificate program that will prepare students for immediate employment and at the same time qualify them for placement in selective health sciences degree programs geared for high-demand, high-wage occupations.

A class or two at a community college can inspire, relatively cheaply, a whole new direction. Celeste Simmons, 39, of Atlanta, trained as a medical assistant and nurse and then started teaching CPR and first aid. "But I didn't want to work in a hospital, and I couldn't find steady employment in the training field," she says. So in 2009, it was back to school at Chattahoochee Technical College for a general associate degree.

"I'd heard community colleges were good if you wanted to switch fields," she says. She took a class in technical writing and was hooked. Today, Simmons works for PlayNation, a manufacturer of swing sets, writing copy for the corporate website, brochures, and pamphlets. "Going back to school was a great experience, and I'm so glad I did it," she says.