Career changers

  • By Mina Williams For The Herald
  • Tuesday, June 28, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

LYNNWOOD — When the economy gets tough, the tough go back to school.

The unemployed and underemployed are eyeing college education as a means to retool, retrain and deepen their skill arsenal.

“Plan A and Plan B didn’t work. It’s a common struggle for people my age,” said 27-year-old

Nicole Kellar, who is pursuing a teaching certificate through Central Washington University’s Career Switcher program at Edmonds Community College after watching her radio career tank with the economy. “I got a degree and hit a wall. There are no jobs.”

Edmonds Community College has seen steady increases in enrollment since the start of the recession, said Marty Cavalluzzi, EdCC’s vice president for instruction. Enrollment at the Lynnwood-based school hit 13,399 in 2010, up from 12,243 in 2008.

A full 14 percent of newly admitted students already hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Economic slump

One of those returning students is Marti Smithsund of Seattle, who recently graduated from EdCC with a certificate in program management.

Earlier this month, she addressed the college’s largest graduating class in more than 10 years.

With a degree in zoology from the University of California and a certificate in training from the University of Washington, she worked as a corporate trainer for more than 15 years.

As the economy soured, projects declined. She took a job as a regular tour guide with Show Me Seattle for two seasons.

To make the 36-credit EdCC program possible, Smithsund dipped into savings and used state funds earmarked for worker retraining, while also collecting unemployment benefits. She estimates that $4,000 in tuition and books was the price tag for reinventing herself.

Kellar, who hopes to be a teacher, is getting help from her parents with the fresh education costs. The teaching program will take 16 months to complete, including student-teaching time, she said.

She has been an assistant coach for girls softball at Kamiak High School in her hometown of Mukilteo and is eager to work with students and teachers in a different role.

“Teaching will be rewarding,” Kellar said.

Kellar, now of Seattle, initially hoped to work at a radio station.

She graduated from Washington State University as satellite radio and syndicated programming took hold of the airways. Wanting to remain in the industry, she enrolled in an audio engineer certificate program in Los Angeles. She completed her course work and did internships, but she still could not find a job. In desperation she moved to Vancouver, Wash., to work at a developing audio studio.

“The economy tanked us,” she said. She then returned to home in South County.

“I’m continually readjusting and adapting,” she said.

On ground, online

Returning students are finding that today’s higher education is nothing like what they experienced the first time around.

“There are increasing opportunities for students,” said EdCC’s Cavalluzzi.

Online courses have opened up the possibility to select programs on their merit, not location. Classes are offered at night, on weekends and as early as 6 a.m., while others are offered online, making education more palatable for students with jobs or family responsibilities.

At EdCC, close to 40 percent of students opt for courses offered partially or fully online.

Other educational groups also aim to capture adult students.

Western Governors University, an online-only nonprofit, claims it has 25,000 students nationwide. Their average age is 36. The Washington branch operates in partnership with the state’s community colleges to transfer credits from those institutions to WGU Washington for bachelor’s degree programs.

In a 2010 college-commissioned survey of graduates, 57 percent said they received a raise, promotion, new position or new job responsibility as a result of their WGU education.

It’s a promise for-profit groups often tap into, as well.

“In a job market that is declining or stagnant, employees need to take measures to stand apart from the crowd,” said Bruce Williams, campus director for the University of Phoenix Western Washington Campus in Tukwila.

The for-profit system also offers classes in Lynnwood. “An advanced degree can show that you are serious about your profession and have the knowledge, skills and drive to succeed in it.”

Check out schools online

When researching schools, make sure you find the right fit and that the school is legitimate. Here are some places to start:

Degree-granting schools: Higher Education Coordinating Board, www.hecb.wa.gov.

Non-degree granting educational institutions: Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board, www.wtb.wa.gov.

Cosmetology and barbering schools: Department of Licensing, www.dol.wa.gov.

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