For some students, certificate programs offer a speedy path to a job
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Edward Cavaciuti was happy with his old life. For 25 years pre-pandemic, he DJed for a living in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Maryland. He cleared $1,000 a week – at least – doing what he loved.
“COVID literally ruined my business,” said Cavaciuti, a single father to a 15-year-old son. “I needed something a little more reliable with no college required.”
Cavaciuti figured why not use the 6’ 2,” 220-pound frame he was blessed with to earn a living doing security.
He got hired at Securitas USA in 2022. But to secure his job, he needed to complete a course and a licensure exam. In came Delaware Technical Community College via its continuing education/workforce training program. Cavaciuti took one course and passed a test, and his license is good for five years.
“There was no prior experience needed as a guard, and I was just looking for something different,” said Cavaciuti, who admits that he hated school and was never much interested in college.
“COVID literally ruined my business. I needed something a little more reliable with no college required.”
To fill private and public sector job vacancies, a growing trend in community colleges has been for students to take short-term, less expensive certificate programs. These middle-skill positions could help balance labor shortages and keep workers competitive for life-sustaining gainful employment. Politicians including former President Barack Obama and companies like IBM and Google have called for workplaces to eliminate de facto degree requirements, which take years to earn.
Saving the College Dream
This story is part of Saving the College Dream, a collaboration between AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, and The Seattle Times, with support from the Solutions Journalism Network.
Today, Cavaciuti makes a salary comparable to what he earned as a DJ and can earn overtime, if he wants to work more than 40 hours.
“Our goal in the division that I oversee is to get folks trained, get them credentialed, and then employed,” said Paul Morris, associate vice president for workforce development and community education at Del Tech.
In 2022, Del Tech awarded 4,500 certificates and credentials. Some of the school’s most popular programs are in fields like health care and nursing, welding, HVAC and construction, and heavy equipment operator, Morris says.
Del Tech, which has partnerships with 650 companies, structures its programs based on job listings in the state and statistics from the Delaware Department of Labor.
Community colleges that offer the most successful certificate programs put in the work to address labor shortages and create opportunities for students to learn marketable skills for in-demand industries, says Joseph Fuller, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They hire teachers for certificates and other programs who have prior industry experience.
These schools, he notes, track graduate progress by checking with employers to validate if their training prepared them for new jobs.
Fuller is a co-author of the recently published study “The Partnership Imperative: Community Colleges, Employers, and America’s Chronic Skills Gap,” based on surveys of community college and business leaders in 2020.
The study found that educators and employers don’t see eye to eye on what the other contributes to workforce development. Only 21 percent of community college leaders strongly agreed that their schools were producing work-ready employees that employers needed. Only 26 percent of employers strongly agreed that community colleges were producing the workers that they needed.
Fuller likens the most successful community colleges to major league baseball teams, while less successful schools that never change what they offer, update curriculum, or develop partnerships, are Class A teams.
He says there is “a very real difference” at schools such as San Jacinto College in Houston; Valencia College in Orlando, Florida; or Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, North Carolina. “The significant majority of schools,” he said, “aren’t as deep or as attuned to employers.”
In 2022, technology giant Intel announced a $20 billion investment to build two chip plants in Ohio, which will create thousands of jobs. It also pledged $100 million toward educational institutions to build employment pipelines. One of those schools was Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio.
One of Fuller’s “major league” schools, LCCC is consistently recognized nationally for student outcomes and successes. It offers 65 free fast-track certificate programs, which can be completed in 16 weeks. More than 1,500 students take a mixture of noncredit and credit offerings, some offered exclusively online. LCCC also offers a one-year Earn and Learn program that combines classroom work and an apprenticeship with a local company. Some of those high-demand industries include automation, cybersecurity, software development, and computer-aided machining.
“We do a lot of listening and learning from our students, from our graduates, from our employers,” said Marcia Ballinger, president of Lorain County Community College.
Working adults with family commitments and complex lives can’t just enroll in a two-year program, says Ballinger. Some students also have confidence issues: They think they aren’t college material and doubt they can be successful.
“We thought, ‘What if we break it up differently so that we can engage them where they’re at?’” Ballinger said.
Forty percent of participants in the 16-week program are students of color, double the demographic makeup of the county, Ballinger says. Recruiting efforts by LCCC have created relationships with local churches; the Urban League; and El Centro, a Latino nonprofit organization.
The driving question, Ballinger said, is: “How can we reach adult learners where they are, connect them to short-term programming that we’re going to wrap our arms around them for those 16 weeks?”
“Our goal in the division that I oversee is to get folks trained, get them credentialed, and then employed.”
Paul Morris, associate vice president for workforce development and community education at Delaware Technical Community College
After the 16-week program, students can move on to the yearlong Earn and Learn credit program – and then, if they wish, work toward their associate degree and bachelor’s degree.
One of those students is Joshua Eschke. Now 20, he had a tumultuous first year at the University of Toledo, which included the death of a family member. He went back home to North Ridgeville. He had been offered a scholarship to LCCC after successfully completing college courses there while still in high school.
“I reached out to them and asked if I could get that same scholarship,” Eschke said.
He got it, and he’s not looking back. Eschke initially enrolled in the one-year Earn and Learn certificate program in microelectromechanical systems, which he is still completing.
He took classes his first semester and now combines those with work at Rockwell Automation, an industrial automation Fortune 500 company that partners with the school. He works as a quality process technician in a plant where they make circuit boards.
“I’m in the one-year program, but I think I’m going to end up doing the bachelor’s,” he said.
Eschke went from nothing to making $23 an hour, which he says he is saving and helping his girlfriend get her degree in early childhood education. His only prior work experience had been making DoorDash deliveries and working as a tour guide.
“For only one semester and a certificate that is pretty amazing,” Mr. Eschke said.
© 2023 The Christian Science Monitor
This story about credential programs was produced by The Christian Science Monitor, as part of the series Saving the College Dream, a collaboration between Hechinger and Education Labs and journalists at The Associated Press, AL.com, The Dallas Morning News, The Seattle Times and The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, with support from the Solutions Journalism Network. Sign up for Hechinger’s higher education newsletter.