Monday, October 03, 2005

Many students trading uinversity degree for vocational training at Solano Community College

Article Last Updated: Wednesday, Sep 28, 2005 - 11:32:00 pm PDT

Sarah Wagner has almost completed the SCC cosmetology course. (Photo by Christine Baker)

Many students trading uinversity degree for vocational training

By Stephanie Jucar

- An aspiring teacher turned hair-dyeing specialist, Heather Smolen won't be using her English degree from a four-year university.

After years of college, she now wants to work in a salon - an occupation that requires less than two years of school - and become a cosmetologist.

"I looked for teaching jobs and wanted to teach high school after I got my degree," she said, trimming a mannequin head of black curly hair in her cosmetology class.

"But after it all, in the back of my mind, I always knew I wanted to be a cosmetologist."

The 27-year-old from Fairfield is a cosmetology student at Solano Community College, hoping to land a job in a salon that pays at least $50,000 a year.

Like Smolen, students find their passion in careers that don't necessarily need a university degree. Many students opt for post-secondary educational programs or vocational schools instead.

In California, 40 percent of high school seniors enter college immediately after graduation, according to the National Governor's Association.

A separate report from the California Department of Education finds nearly 30 percent of Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District students head off to college after high school.

So where do the other 70 percent of students go?

Another option

Some of them choose to go to vocational schools rather than attending a four-year college.

Mindy Bingham, co-author of "Career Choices" - a curriculum book used in thousands of high schools in the nation - said vocational education and training during and after high school is needed for teens to compete in the global marketplace.

"There's the No Child Left Behind movement and we've got these students to read and write who are strong in academics but we need a bigger push on career academics," she said.

Though college is a route many recent high school graduates take, Bingham said it doesn't have to be the only choice for students.

"College is too limiting to look at," she said. "A lot of parents think the magic word, 'four-year college' is the path . . . parents need to work with children to navigate different options."

Several vocational programs are available in local schools, such as Solano Community College and the Fairfield-Suisun Adult School.

At Solano Community College, the fire technical program, criminal justice program and cosmetology school are the three most popular vocational courses, said Bob Johnson, the college's dean of vocational programs.

"There's a high demand for these jobs," he said. "Many of these jobs make a livable wage and they're careers that give flexibility."

At Fairfield-Suisun Adult School, teens and early 20-somethings are taking medical, nursing or pharmacy assistant and technical classes, said Julia May, the school's assistant principal.

When students are finished with these 12- to 25-week classes, many find positions at hospitals, earning $10 to $18 per hour, she said.

The Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District has several post-secondary educational programs in all three high schools, leading students to career-related and skilled jobs after graduating, said Barbara Mallon, the school district's board president.

Though vocational classes are available for students after high school, the school district starts the process earlier.

Frank Kardos, the school district's coordinator of post-secondary preparation, said he looked at different sectors of the economy where career-related jobs are needed.

Going vocational

At Fairfield, Armijo and Rodriguez high schools, a mix of these programs are available for students. Some offer a certificate to students by the time they graduate and some offer credit that can be transferred to another vocational school.

Kardos said many students seek more education related to these fields, either at a two-year college, such as Solano Community College, or at four-year universities. Other students find jobs right out of high school with the help of their experiences in these classes.

New to Fairfield High School last year, the culinary arts program already had five graduates admitted to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Kardos said. Because of the Culinary Academy's success, the high school will open a small cafe held by the students next year, Kardos said.

At Armijo High School, the two-year Automotive Service Excellence program has students working with automotive dealerships, such as Fairfield Toyota and Vacaville Pontiac. And currently, 25 high school graduates from this program work at local dealerships, Kardos said.

The video production program at Rodriguez High School has students producing work on local cable channel 26 and other smaller production companies, he said.

"They've worked with all types of people in the business," he said. "Many of these kids are still going to college."

If students decide they don't want to go that route - they are encouraged to take on a career choice that doesn't involve committing four or more years at a university.

Smolen knows. She's been through both.

"It seems like it's always college, college, college," she said. "People who go to vocational schools are often thought of as having less worth in society, but we're still making a difference out there."

Reach Stephanie Jucar at 427-6955 or

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