Boston Globe - Worried workers race to retool
Adults head to school in droves, fretting over layoffs, a lack of skills
By Peter Schworm
From recent immigrants improving their English, in hopes of landing better jobs, to laid-off financial analysts looking to start new careers, more adults are enrolling in career-oriented courses at colleges, workforce development programs, and vocational schools, according to college officials, employers, and labor specialists.
"They know they often need that piece of paper to get ahead," said Joan Dolamore, dean of lifelong learning at Wentworth Institute of Technology, whose professional and continuing studies division saw new enrollments last fall double from the previous year.
"For students who have been laid off or seen their hours cut, it gives them a chance to accelerate their education, because now they have time to take more than one or two classes per semester."
Popular pursuits include legal studies, healthcare occupations, and business administration, educators say. Cooking and bartending schools also say they have drawn more interest from people looking to start a new career or for a backup plan in case their current one falters.
"It's like a second chance," said Rick Jackson, admissions director at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Cambridge.
Monica Tosches, a 44-year-old law librarian from Malden who lost her job to downsizing last year, said her layoff made her realize that she had to stand out from the crowd. She is now enrolled at Bunker Hill's paralegal certificate program, hoping to land a more lucrative job.
"There's a saying in law firms, 'If you're not billable, you're expendable,' " said Tosches. "I'm hoping that this really pays off."
With jobs scarce, people like Tosches are flocking to certificate programs, courses designed to provide specific job skills, to save the time and money necessary to pursue a degree.
At Bunker Hill Community College, enrollment in certificate programs rose 35 percent last fall over the previous year. Fisher College, a private school in the Back Bay, has seen enrollment in its health information technology program swell 16 percent and its criminal justice program 21 percent over last year. The University of Massachusetts at Boston says applications for certificate programs are up 32 percent for graduate students and 23 percent for undergraduates.
"As people get more worried about job security, they start looking for more credentials," said Christopher Hopey, dean of Northeastern University's College of Professional Studies, where enrollment in graduate programs has soared 60 percent over last year. "A lot of people are saying, 'How do I protect myself?' "
With many employers scaling back tuition reimbursement programs, more adults are paying for their studies, increasing the appeal of short-term programs with a practical focus.
Since few students can afford to be without a paycheck, many are taking classes at night or on weekends, or online, where they can make their own schedule.
"Our enrollment is traditionally countercyclical to the economy," said David J. Gray, CEO of UMassOnline, the university's distance education program. "But a lot of people are seeing other people getting laid off and thinking, 'What can I do to assure this doesn't happen to me?' "
UMassOnline says its overall enrollment has risen 22 percent in the past year, driven in large part by full-time workers who need the flexibility online courses offer.
Boston University's continuing education school, Boston University Metropolitan College, has seen a similar rush toward online degrees and certificate programs.
"The only one that isn't doing well is certified financial planners," said Jay Halfond, the college's dean, of its programs.
Yet Massachusetts has lagged behind other states during the past decade in the number of students earning two-year degrees and undergraduate certificates, raising questions about the adult education system and concerns about the overall skill level of the workforce.
Nationally, the number of associate's degrees awarded rose 34 percent from 1996 to 2007, while it fell 16 percent in Massachusetts and 28 percent in Boston, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.
Just 5 percent of Massachusetts adults with less than a high school diploma are enrolled in state-funded adult education courses, the lowest rate in New England.
Helping to fill the gap are initiatives such as SkillWorks, a job training initiative involving 40 employers and 30 community-based groups. Among other programs, it helps sponsor ESL classes for employees of hospitals in the Longwood Medical Area.
At a recent class, students learned sentence structure and vocabulary, concentrating on terms they might encounter at work. The idea, SkillWorks officials say, is to prepare workers, most of whom hold entry-level positions, for additional training and a more promising career.
These workers, notes Kira Khazatsky, who directs the program, were struggling to compete in the job market long before the economy soured.
"I'm not sure what my next step is," said Vladimir Yeliseyev, 30, a native of Belarus who works as a lab technician at Brigham and Women's Hospital. "But I'm sure I need to learn English and continue my education."
Not that all workers are returning to school for necessity's sake. Jeff Dudley of New Hampshire found himself with the freedom and financial flexibility to attend culinary school after the startup data storage company he worked for was purchased by Dell. Now he attends Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts to become an executive caterer.
"For a long time, I did what I had to do," said Dudley, 43. "Now I am hoping to do what I want to do."