Community college trade certificate programs cost-effective option for job skills

By Robert Nott
rnott@sfnewmexican.com
Posted 12/12/18

Lucia Polchies swept her soldering torch over a piece of metal, fashioning it into the likeness of a rhinoceros head.The 22-year-old Santa Fe resident loves the …

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Community college trade certificate programs cost-effective option for job skills

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Lucia Polchies swept her soldering torch over a piece of metal, fashioning it into the likeness of a rhinoceros head.

The 22-year-old Santa Fe resident loves the work at Prescott Studio off Agua Fría Street, building the contemporary kinetic animal sculptures of artist Fredrick Prescott because it allows her to express her creative side. "It's a skilled way to apply a touch of art while you're working with your hands," she said. "You see it come out as a sculpture or a piece of art."

She's earning $15 an hour at the studio and gallery, thanks in large part to a certificate she earned in welding fabrication at Santa Fe Community College.

"A certificate shows that you have a general knowledge in welding," Polchies said. "It still makes you 'green,' but it also gets your foot in the door. If you don't have work experience, a certificate gives you a chance to get that work experience."

An increasing number of people in Taos, Santa Fe and across the nation are choosing to pursue certificates rather than an associate or bachelor's degree to more quickly - and more economically - prepare for the workforce.

The National Center for Education Statistics has reported that between the 2000-01 school year and 2015-16, the number of students earning certificates nationwide increased by 70 percent, to about 1 million people, far outpacing growth in the number of students seeking college degrees.

Santa Fe Community College, meanwhile, has seen the number of certificates awarded to its students in the fall semester more than double in the past five years, to 205 certificates in 2017 from 83 in 2013.

The University of New Mexico-Taos now offers 20 certificates and ten associates degrees, in everything from entrepreneurship to integrative massage therapy.

Some such trade certificates, available in a range of fields, can be earned in a number of weeks through intensive programs, while others can take up to two years to complete. Certificate programs generally don't require students to take prerequisite courses (English 101, for example), and they often come at a lower price because they call for fewer credit hours. At Santa Fe Community College, the cost is $48 to $60 per credit hour for New Mexico residents.

"It can be a more cost-effective way for a student who says, 'I don't have a job, I don't have a skill set, but I need a job,' " said Mateo Frazier, chairman of the Fine Arts and Digital Media Arts Department at Northern New Mexico College in Española.

That college recently launched a six-credit certificate program that prepares students for entry-level jobs in the drone technology field.

"The goal of a certificate program," Frazier said, "is if you have someone who doesn't have an employable skill, it gives them that skill."

While some public and private institutes that offer only certificate-based programs have faced criticism in the past few years - a 2017 report by the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Third Way said the high-priced programs produce workers who earn no more than a high school graduate - community colleges offering certificates as part of their curriculum have not drawn such fire.

Santa Fe Community College offers about 90 certificate programs ranging from algae cultivation to auto engine repair, culinary arts and plumbing.

Interim President Cecilia Cervantes said credits earned through these programs can be applied toward higher-level degrees, prompting students to continue their education.

"Certificates are an outstanding way to begin your higher-ed experience," Cervantes said. "With the money they can make once they earn that certificate and get a job," she said, students "can continue their education, pay their bills, help their families - and their self-confidence is boosted."

Community colleges can respond to the needs of local employers when they develop such programs, she added. "We need to be in tune to the needs of the workforce of our community and adjust accordingly."

Local employers said they find the certificates come in handy when they're recruiting new workers.

"A certificate is something that - as someone hiring - shows that you were taught the basics, the art, the technique of the trade," said Seth Marin-Demers, Polchies' boss at Prescott Studios. "I think it's highly important for someone seeking a job."

Martin Salazar, an emergency medical services captain with the Albuquerque Fire Department, said the need for qualified workers in his field is so high now that "we'll hire everybody" who earns a certificate.

Those students have mastered the same national standards for emergency medical responders as students who pursue higher levels of education, he said, and they come in ready to work on day one.

Salazar was one of several medical professionals who attended a graduation ceremony Monday for 12 students who completed Santa Fe Community College's paramedic certificate program.

"It's a great stepping stone to all of the jobs in the medical field," said 25-year-old John Van Damme of Albuquerque, one of the graduates who took part in the 14-month paramedic program, which included lectures, clinical work, classroom exercises and internships that put the students in real-world situations in the field.

"I see this as a gateway into nursing, firefighting, any health care profession," Van Damme said.

Not all students who started the program with the 12 graduates stuck with it to the end. Van Damme estimated a half-dozen dropped out.

Such intense, accelerated programs can jar students who are not accustomed to taking fast-track classes.

"No summer break, no downtime, no romance," said Anna Swanson, another graduate of the community college's paramedic program. On the other hand, she said, the lack of a summer break meant she did "not forget stuff, and if it helps me knock off a semester to get the certificate, that's OK."

Another drawback of certificate programs is limited access to financial aid. In New Mexico, a student pursuing a certificate rather than a two-year or four-year degree cannot take advantage of the state's Legislative Lottery Scholarship Program, which pays 60 percent of tuition for those who qualify.

Still, said Lindsay Eakes, director of the paramedics program at the University of New Mexico's EMS Academy, the advantage is "you pay it and you're done. There's no student loan, no money you need to pay us back. ... It's considerably less expensive than taking credit courses at the institution for a degree."

Polchies, a Vermont native who studied studio arts at the now-shuttered, for-profit Santa Fe University of Art and Design for a year, said money was her main motivation for earning a certificate. The training in welding and metalwork allows her to create functional art pieces and "make a good amount of money," she said.

Ultimately, she wants to earn a journeyman's license and land a job welding at Los Alamos National Laboratory while creating her own artwork on the side.

She's already picked up several welding gigs and has had numerous job offers, some dating back to when she was still working to earn a certificate.

"If you go to school to get a certificate, employers see that you are trying," she said. "They think you're legit.

"A certificate, to me, is a better idea than going to a four-year school," Polchies added. "Trade school programs focus on one thing: teaching you that trade and getting you into the field as fast as possible. It's perfect."

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