Are ‘middle skills’ the new four-year degree?

Program from ’80s gaining popularity in today’s economy

skills-degree-studentsIn what was designed to target low-income students with limited job and education prospects back in the late 1980s, a skills pipeline program is gaining momentum as more of today’s students realize the benefit of ‘middle skills,’ or those that require less than a traditional four-year degree but more than a high school diploma, and pay well per hour right after graduation.

For example, high school senior Angelica Gaytan wants to be an FBI agent. But if that doesn’t work out, she’s considering subsea welding.

“I need a Plan B,” said Gaytan, a student at Benjamin O. Davis Jr. Senior High School who first learned about underwater welding from her uncle. But she got a lot more insight into welding careers this week as part of a program called Project GRAD.

(Next page: GRAD a smart skills idea)

For two weeks this summer, about 75 high school students from the Houston and Aldine independent school districts are riding school buses each morning to Lone Star College’s North Harris Campus to learn about opportunities in “middle skills”–trades like welding, machining and pipeline technology that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree.

In addition to the hands-on experience with welding and machine programming and tooling, the students are getting opportunities to practice their job interview skills.

On Thursday, the students took turns and gave 30-second introductions before a panel of human resource representatives. The employers encouraged the students to offer more specifics when they describe their work experience, exude more confidence by practicing and talk louder.

Project GRAD, which started in 1989, is designed for students in low-income communities. It coaches them–and their parents–in how to prepare for careers and college, from short-term certificate courses at community colleges to four-year traditional college degree programs.

About 500 students graduate each year as Project GRAD Scholars. Since 1992, about 6,400 of them have enrolled in college.

The two-week program this summer, a collaborative effort among Chase, Project GRAD, Lone Star College and Gulf Coast Workforce Solutions, is an effort to focus on well-paid, in-demand careers that don’t require college degrees.

Alberto Urbina, director of applied technology at Lone Star, told the students in one of the sessions that welders can earn as much as $20 an hour with a certificate that requires six months to a year to earn.

And welding is in such demand that many welders work more than 40 hours a week.

“It’s real easy to break $1,000 a week when you’re working overtime,” he said.

(Next page: The skills pipeline)

And the jobs are easy to find, he said, urging the students to look for themselves by typing in “welder” at one of the big online job boards and seeing the pages and pages of listings. And welders don’t necessarily have to weld.

“A lot of people think it’s all about the hot metal and sparks, but that’s not true,” said Urbina. Welders can work as supervisors, inspectors and technicians.

For those higher-level welding positions, companies typically want an associate degree that requires 18 to 24 months of study. But the wages are higher, he said, starting at $20 to $25 an hour.

High school senior Kimberly Lopez said that before Urbina’s presentation, she had no idea how much welders earned or the wide variety of welding careers. While she still doesn’t want to be a welder – she has her sights focused on becoming a health or physical education teacher – she said the Project GRAD program is opening her eyes to a variety of opportunities.

Alejandro Ibarra, a senior at Sam Houston Math, Science and Technology Center, wasn’t converted either. He’s planning to study the culinary arts.

Programs like Project GRAD are attracting employers who are trying to find and recruit enough welders.

“I’m always looking for 50,” said Mike Buendia, director of human resources for Southwest Shipyard.

And that number of openings is likely to grow as his company expands its operations, said Buendia, who participated on a panel of employers that evaluated each student’s 30-second introduction.

He said he makes his way around to the community colleges and other training programs to recruit the workers the shipyard needs to build, repair and maintain ships, ferries and other vessels.

Next week, Project GRAD is hosting parents for a session that includes a career fair as well as information on applying for college and how to find financial aid.

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