Roads Less Traveled

By Maggie Raycheva | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 11.12.15 – Feature, In the Studio, Lifestyles, People & Places

Sarah Loveless, an Oakdale High School senior, has no intention of wandering aimlessly through college just for the sake of getting a degree.  She has seen enough of her friends attend a four-year college only to bounce between majors and pile up student debt. Loveless is taking a different path to the future.

Loveless has banked more than 1,000 hours of cosmetology training, and secured a job at a salon that will hire her as soon as she graduates and earns her license, a contrast to peers who are still years from earning a paycheck in a career.

A student at the Frederick County Career and Technology Center’s cosmetology program, Loveless is spending her last two years at school studying physiology and anatomy, honing her hair skills and practicing anything from chemical relaxing and thermal pressing to applying skin treatments and hair color.

“A lot of my friends who go to a four-year college switch their majors two or three times. They spend too much money on something that they are not even sure they want to do,” she says.

As soon as she starts earning an income, Loveless wants to pay for business classes at Frederick Community College so that one day she can open her own salon. “I don’t want a job where I get to sit behind a desk and type,” she says. “I love making people feel beautiful.”

Haunted by stories of college debt and tough job markets, some Frederick County students like Loveless are rediscovering the value of the trades and skill-based professions. Like Loveless, they don’t want to spend their life tied to a cubicle. And rather than writing term papers, they would rather work with their hands, tinker with machinery, fix and build, cook and nurse.

While they are not necessarily forgoing all post-secondary education, these students are simply more eager to master a skill rather than get a diploma, any diploma, from a four-year college. They are turning to trade schools, vocational programs, community college and career certificates and applying for apprenticeships as auto mechanics, plumbers, welders and electricians.

According to experts, it will be careers requiring more than high school and less than a four-year college education that will dominate the job market.  And yet in this day and age, when more and more students have aspirations for ivory-tower education, the skill-oriented professions, the so-called “dirty jobs” are often frowned upon, even when they promise steady employment and a good income.

According to experts, it will be careers requiring more than high school and less than a four-year college education that will dominate the job market.

“Culturally, we have taken physical work and made it less desirable,” says Patricia Meyer, executive director for workforce training at Frederick Community College. “And it’s really hard to change perception of opportunities. There has to be a cultural shift to change that perception.”

In 2013, the Manpower Group reported that the skilled trades—including welders, electricians and machinists for manufacturing and construction—had been the hardest workforce segment for employers to staff for three years. In manufacturing and construction, dominated by aging baby boomers, the demand will continue to grow. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, expects employment for electricians (who make a median wage of $49,840) to grow 20 percent by 2022.

Statistics in Maryland mirror those national trends. The National Skills Coalition, which advocates for workforce training, reports that the so-called “middle-skill” jobs make up the largest part of the job market in the state and estimates that through 2022, 43 percent of job openings in Maryland will fall into that category.

In 2012, the group classified 48 percent of jobs in the state as middle-skill and found that only 39 percent of the state’s workers were trained for them. In contrast, in the low-skill and high-skill level of the job spectrum the number of workers outweighed the number of jobs.

“In this country, there is a strong bias against middle-skill jobs,” says Nicole Smith, a research professor and senior economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

“For many, many years we have been taught that college is the way to access middle-class jobs, middle-class wages and the American Dream,” she says. “The notion is that a bachelor’s degree will get you in a cushy office chair and a middle-skill job will get you in a hard hat, out in the elements.”

But as the labor market continues to change, some old pre-conceived notions are simply no-longer true, Smith says.

While a bachelor’s degree can give you more opportunity for advancement, not every bachelor’s degree leads to a high salary. And not going to a four-year college does not equal a career dead end. Thanks to technological innovations, some professional fields are seeing whole clusters of new jobs that require middle-skill credentials, such as an associate’s degree or industry certifications, Smith says. For example there’s a growing need for engineering technicians and machine operators to support new high-tech manufacturing equipment.

In the growing healthcare field there are also numerous opportunities for skilled workers that do not require a bachelor’s degree. Diagnostic medical sonographers and cardio-vascular technologists and technicians—who conduct tests and operate special imaging equipment—can enter the profession with an associate’s degree or post-secondary certificate and make a median pay of $60,350, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Jobs in healthcare are projected to grow by 39 percent by 2022.

And just like bachelor’s degrees, not all middle-skill level jobs offer the same financial rewards and growth opportunity, Smith says. Some healthcare support professions—such as nurse’s aides and assistants—require a minimal level of post-secondary education, pay lower wages and often offer very few opportunities for advancement.

Cosmetology is another tricky— and highly competitive—middle-skill professional field, Smith says.

With hundreds of aspiring workers getting their license every year, aspiring cosmetologists like Loveless can face the danger of getting stuck working a low-paid job in someone else’s salon, without opportunity for advancement, Smith says. That is where getting additional academic credentials can be truly valuable. “If that person combines that [passion] with business training, that is when you have better career prospects,” she says.

In Frederick County, students have a variety of options for accessing those middle-skill professions. Those who want to stay close to home can take classes at Frederick Community College and choose among a variety of associate’s degree or certificate programs, which can be completed fast and at about half the price of a typical four-year college.

The college offers at least 18 associate-of-applied science programs designed specifically for students who seek employment immediately after graduation. These include two-year degrees in the high-growth and high-demand fields of nuclear medicine technology, bio-processing technology and cybersecurity.

For those who may not be ready for a full-scale associate’s degree, there are also short-term career training options—in medical coding and billing, culinary skills, hospitality and supervision or child care— that can be completed in less than a year. A number of those short-term programs options prepare students for pursuing industry certifications or licensure.

Last year, the college had 300 registrations just in the construction trades workforce programs, which prepare aspiring welders, electricians and heating, ventilation and air conditioning technicians for certifications. “There is a huge shortage of labor in the construction industry,” says Frederick Community College instructional specialist Chuck LoSchiavo. “The recession kicked a lot of people out of employment.”

Brad McCutcheon was one of the students who completed the welding certification program at FCC last semester and went on to earn two welding certifications. A 2007 Catoctin High School graduate, McCutcheon considered going to a four-year college but ended up working for his family business, McCutcheon Apple Products, which produces apple juice, ciders, apple butters, jellies and preserves. McCutcheon became interested in welding because that was the one thing he couldn’t do when fixing equipment for the business.

While they still learn the theory behind the trades, students at the CTC actually get to fix cars, cut hair and cook.

“I took the course because I wanted to better myself,” he says. While McCutcheon’s welding certifications would allow him to work on equipment designed for food production, a welder with a variety of certifications and the skills to fix boilers or complex equipment would be in high demand and could make a very good living, he says.

The Frederick County Public Schools Career and Technology Center (CTC) is another resource for students who may be interested in pursuing a career in the skilled trades. Created in 1976, the center was originally designed as a vocational school preparing students to work in carpentry, masonry and automotive technology right after high school.

But over the years the center, which serves students in grades 10, 11 or 12 at any Frederick County public high school, has changed to reflect the new face of the skilled trades. Today, the school offers additional high-tech courses in bioscience, healthcare, computer repair, networking and security. It allows students to earn college credit and prepares them for industry certifications, so by the time they graduate they can choose to enter the workforce, continue their education or do both, says principal Michael Concepcion.

He estimates that 74 percent of his roughly 700 students continue their post-secondary education.  “The CTC embraces the idea of college,” Concepcion says. “Our students are graduating from high school with the skills to get an entry-level position. But because they have gone the extra mile at the CTC, you have to look at them as industry leaders.”

In the computer technician analyst program, for example, students can get a CompTIA A+ certification, a credential which opens the door to a career in IT. Even without further education, the certification could allow a student to start work as a computer system’s administrator or desktop support technician.

Students who complete the program earn 11 credits at Frederick Community College, says Jim Dorsch, who teaches the program.  “That is a big advantage for these students,” he says.

The center’s more advanced Cisco Networking Academy and Security + computer program tracks carry even more opportunities for advancement, even if students are only willing to get an associate’s degree. “Upon taking our classes, our students are a step ahead of their peers,” says Audra Jacob, an instructional assistant who recruits students for the specialized school.

Frank Taylor, who teaches carpentry at the center agrees. Those who complete Taylor’s program are not only ready for industry certifications, but can also shave an entire year from the typically four-year-long carpentry apprenticeship.  “For students who decide to work after high school, there are a lot of opportunities,” Taylor says. “Our industry is no different than any other. The more education you obtain, the more opportunities are there for you.”

Over the years, Taylor’s students have gone in various directions. Taking advantage of their college credits some earned a construction management degree at FCC. Others have gone on to work for local businesses, sell construction products or start their own companies.

Every one of the programs at the CTC has an advisory committee of business and industry leaders, which keeps the programs current and often makes it easy for students to find work right out of high school.

Kevin Sharrer graduated from the carpentry program in 1998 and in 2010 started his own construction and remodeling business, KLC Home Improvement, in Rocky Ridge. Sharrer got his first job through the carpentry program and credits the center for helping him find the right career path.  “I have never had to look for work,” he says.

Today, he remains closely involved with the CTC and is one of the industry insiders who mentor students in construction. Over the years, he has also hired students from the school, including one of last year’s carpentry graduates who now works for him full time.

The graduate, Austin Hahn, who placed 10th in the National SkillsUSA competition, had three job offers starting at $12 an hour by the time he completed the program, Sharrer says. “There is an overall shortage of carpenters,” he says. “We are not looking for anyone that can work. We need skilled workers.”

As the economy continues to recover, in Frederick County there will be an even bigger need for construction workers with specific skills, Sharrer says. Skilled masons, for example, are in high demand and can earn high wages. But not many young people are entering the profession because it’s physically taxing, he says. “It is hard work and most kids today don’t want to do hard work.”

Hands-On Experience

What makes trade schools and technical career programs really attractive to some students is the practical, hands-on aspect of learning.

While they still learn the theory behind the trades, students at the CTC actually get to fix cars, cut hair and cook. The center’s unique student house project even allows students in six construction programs—including masonry, woodworking, plumbing, carpentry, architecture and landscaping—to join forces and construct an entire home in the community.

Jenna Conway, a Walkersville High School junior, who participates in the auto collision repair program at the CTC, was captivated from the minute she walked into the car repair shop at the center. Now she spends her class time rebuilding cars, taking apart engines, sanding, painting and even welding. “My favorite part was welding,” she says. “It’s kind of dangerous and molten metal is all around you. But putting two pieces of metal together is pretty awesome.”

As part of the classes, Conway and her classmates took apart an entire car, down to the engine. “It was amazing how much work went into that. There are so many small details that are put to work into a car. Every day I walk in here, I am glad I did it,” says Conway, who wants to go to a trade school, such as Ohio Tech, to get certifications as an auto repair technician.

Kendall Thomas felt the same way when she started working as a receptionist at The Temple, A Paul Mitchell Partner School for cosmetology in Downtown Frederick. A college graduate who just earned her bachelor’s degree in business from Mount St. Mary’s University, Thomas started classes at The Temple in September and immediately fell in love with the unique atmosphere and hands-on nature of the program.

“In college you are forced to learn things that you are not really interested in,” she says. “Here there is passion. I just saw how the students learn and grow and develop and I thought, ‘I want this for myself!’”

At The Temple, owners Sharon and Charles Riser are trying to give their students a competitive edge by going above and beyond what is required for the Maryland-Board of Cosmetology Examination. The Temple’s program, covers not just the basics of sanitation, hair, nail and skin care, but also practical financial and managerial skills such as salon-related computer knowledge, record keeping, client retention and business ethics. “We teach them about the business behind the beauty business,” says Sharon Riser.

The Risers, who also own the New York, New York salon in Frederick, started the school 10 years ago because they were having a hard time hiring skilled professionals with up-to-date industry training and a professional attitude. “They just didn’t know how to communicate with clients,” Sharon Riser says.

Today, the Risers take pride in providing their students with an opportunity to stay on the cutting edge of the industry. Students participate in contests, put together fashion shows and numerous charitable events, travel to shows in New York, and even learn to use social media to market themselves.

They also have the unique opportunity to learn from industry leaders, who visit and teach as guest artists. In October for example, students at the Temple received career-building advice from Hollywood celebrity stylist and men’s grooming expert Diana Schmidtke, whose A-list clientele includes Matt Damon, George Clooney and Robert Pattison.

The Temple school, which serves up to 150 students every year, offers 1,500 hours of instruction as full-time, part-time or day classes. After completing 350 hours of training, students can practice hair styling on real customers through the school “clinic.” When students are ready, the school pays for students’ State Board of Cosmetology examination and sets up interviews for job placements after graduation, the Risers say. Last year, they were able to secure job placements for 97 percent of their graduates.

Just like all other colleges in the state, the school is accredited under the Maryland Department of Higher Education and has to meet certain requirements for student retention and graduation, Charles Riser says. Tuition for the program is $20,150, which includes $3,000 for textbooks, equipment and supplies.

The Risers are aware of the negative stereotypes that often come up in relation to the trades and skilled professions. In response, they point to the accomplishments of their graduates, some of whom work in high-end salons locally and around the country, style the hair of celebrities and models on New York’s fashion runways, run successful businesses in Frederick County and across the Washington, D.C., area and even teach cosmetology.

The skilled trades benefit communities because they help create local jobs and support the local economy, Charles Riser says. “The economy in the United States is moving into a trades-based economy. And one of the only things you can’t outsource is labor.”

McCutcheon, the certified welder, has no regrets about not going to a four-year college. Though some time in the future, he may decide to expand his welding certifications and possibly take some classes in business, for now he is happy using his technical skills to help grow and support the family business.

“I have a lot of friends who have four-year degrees and don’t know what to do with them,” he says. “My college is all paid for and I kind of feel like I am ahead of the game.”