How Oregon Works: 4 Pathways to a Living-Wage Career (Portland Business Journal, December 2018)

Posted on December 8, 2018 in Media Coverage

By Sean Meyers

Read the story below and here.

A college education is the path most commonly tread by high school graduates.

It’s no wonder. College is the gateway to an array of career opportunities. It’s also the pathway most celebrated by parents, teachers, administrators, career counselors and plenty of other well-intentioned individuals who intersect with students throughout their K-12 careers.

But it’s certainly not the only option available to young people seeking a career that is fulfilling both professionally and personally, and that pays the bills.

Below are snapshots of 4 career pathways, including college, that are worth considering.

No. 1: Trade schools and certificates

For-profit career and trade schools can be the fastest way to a high-paying wage for people who know exactly what they want to do. It’s also the least-regulated route and therefore requires some caution.

“A lot of schools will say they have a ’90 percent placement rate,’ for example, but you have to dig a lot deeper. How long did it take to place those students? Were they placed in their desired field, or were some of those jobs internships? You have to be very careful,” said Michael Kaiser-Nyman, who launched Epicodus coding school in Portland in 2012.

Epicodus is a founding member of the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting, which seeks to enforce consumer protections in the mushrooming field of coding schools and bootcamps. There are currently 195 for-profit and trade schools in Oregon.

“It’s a risky thing, and we’re looking for ways to make it less risky,” said Kaiser-Nyman.

Shop carefully because fees can fluctuate wildly. Epicodus charges $6,900 for a 27-week course, the longest in the Portland area. The national average is about $12,000, and one Portland school charges $20,000.

Many trade and vocational courses and certificates are coordinated by state agencies and delivered on-campus at community colleges at a very affordable rate and in 15 weeks or less.

Living near a campus can boost success. Students often cite transportation issues as the reason for dropping out, said Roni Wilhelm, director of Workforce Development Services at Clackamas Community College (CCC).

“But the No. 1 reason students drop out is probably child care. It’s so expensive, and many students have the type of schedule that makes it even harder to find a provider.”

Studies have shown that small class sizes and involvement in club or other extra-curricular activities can greatly improve on-campus success, said Dustin Bare, director of student and academic support at CCC.

“The more engaged students are on campus, the more successful they will be. It’s so important to get connected with other people.”

As you’re planning your coursework, remember that a successful career in the trades requires good communication and fundamental math skills, said Andrew McGough, executive director of Worksystems. “It doesn’t have to be Algebra II level necessarily, but you’ll need a good working knowledge of math.”

No. 2: Apprenticeships and On-the-Job Training

Self-motivated people who are willing to go the extra mile have the best chance of succeeding in apprenticeships and on-the-job training programs.

“We in the trades want people who are go-getters. If the job starts at 6:30, be there at 6:15, so you can talk to the foreman. And when the shift is over, be willing to stay late to put away tools, help prepare for the next day’s work, or whatever else needs to be done,” advised James Reyes, director of education at the apprentice program portal Northwest College of Construction (NCC).

It costs nothing to attend NCC. Students need bring only a commitment to attend training sessions — ranging from laborer to pipe-laying — for four hours on one night per week over seven months.

NCC is open to all comers, regardless of education level. Forty-four percent of its 500 students are women and people of color, compared with about 10 percent currently in the construction workforce, said Reyes. The state goal is 13 percent.

Among union shops, IBEW 48’s electrical apprenticeship program lasts from 30 months to five years, and includes on-the-job training.

In the tight labor market, demand for skilled workers is high and many industries are devoting considerable resources to reaching out to young people.

“We have college mentorship programs with paid high school internships, and we’re also working with the local carpenter’s union,” said Bart Ricketts, CEO of general contractor Lease Crutcher Lewis in Portland.

“ACE Mentors Portland has a great program that has helped us get some of our employees involved with mentoring high school students. We’re also involved with the Educators Externship program, working with high school instructors to help them identify the types of students who would do well in construction and help steer them into our industry, rather than take jobs that might not be as fulfilling.”

ACE Mentors Portland addresses labor force shortages in architecture, construction and engineering by connecting professional mentors and high school students.

The Northwest Youth Careers Expo, held each March at the Oregon Convention Center and sponsored by the nonprofit Portland Workforce Alliance offers an opportunity for young people to land jobs, internships and apprenticeships. This year more than 170 employers attended the event.

No. 3: Two-year Community College

Despite 200 percent cost increases over the past seven years, community colleges are still one of the most affordable post-secondary education options, but also the most risky. Just 37 percent of students who begin a two-year program will graduate.

Value-driven, goal-oriented students who want to keep their options open are good candidates for community colleges, said Dr. Lisa Skari, president of Mt. Hood Community College.

“In two years or less, you can prepare for a career in a wide range of fields, including health care, manufacturing, construction, automotive and more. Or, if you’re on a track to a bachelor’s degree, you can complete your first two years at around half the cost of a four-year institution before transferring.”

Oregonians are served by 17 community colleges, with more than 60 campuses and centers throughout the state. In-district tuition for Oregon community colleges range from $4,500 a year at Chemeketa Community College in Salem to $5,963 at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton.

Enrollment at community colleges has declined in the past few years. That is likely due, in part, to the healthy economy — when jobs are aplenty, fewer people choose college.

Students who drop out are often overwhelmed, overextended, underfunded and/or underprepared, according to the Community College Completion Corps.

A CCCC study found that 54 percent of dropouts reported that they needed to work to support themselves or their families and could not balance work and classes. Thirty-one percent said they couldn’t afford classes.

It’s important to get it right the first time. While 65 percent of dropouts plan to return, only about 38 percent will do so, according to CCCC.

It’s difficult for many young people to look two years in the future. This is one area where adult supervision comes in handy, said Dan Ryan, CEO of the Portland nonprofit All Hands Raised, which works to achieve equity in education. “Sitting down with a mentor or counselor and creating a detailed plan for each year that the student can get excited about will greatly increase the chance of success.”

When planning a college curriculum, remember that most people will change occupations several times over a lifetime, said Michelle Jones, founder of Wayfinding Academy, a two-year college in Portland. “Take courses that will give you the tools to figure it out again and again and again.”

No. 4: Four-year College

The payoff for obtaining a four-year college degree can be staggering. Depending on the source – and there are many – a four-year degree will earn the graduate an average of $1 million more over a lifetime compared with a high school graduate.

Although Oregon’s high school graduation rate is ranked third-worst in the country, students who graduate high school tend to matriculate at a higher rate than the national average, particularly Portland metro area students, including those in districts with lower household income.

The International School of Beaverton sent 92.2 percent of its graduates on to college, while Parkrose sent 68.9 percent. Nationally, about two-thirds of high school graduates will go on to some form of college, and slightly more than half of those will drop out.

What students, and the adults helping to guide them, need to know in planning and paying for college is that graduating in four years isn’t the norm. Of the 22 Oregon colleges and universities that supplied the Business Journal with figures for a recent list, the four-year bachelor’s graduation rate as of 2017 was just 41 percent.

Oregon Health & Science University had the highest four-year bachelor’s degree graduation rate at 91 percent. OHSU was followed by the University of Portland at 75 percent, Willamette University at 69 percent, Lewis & Clark College at 68 percent and Linfield College at 62 percent.

When it comes to not finishing at all, students cite a wide range of reasons, including tuition costs, moving to a new school, a strong job market and withdrawal of family support.

Failure can be expensive. Undergraduate in-state tuition at Oregon’s three largest four-year public universities is $9,390 at Oregon State University, $6,156 at Portland State University and $9,765 at the University of Oregon.

Ethan Knight, founder of the Portland-based Gap Year Association, said taking a year off after high school graduation can help young students prepare for college. A gap year can be the pause that truly refreshes.

Knight said gap-year students graduate at a higher rate and report that they gain a better sense of who they are and what is important, have a better understanding of other people and cultures, and acquire additional skills and knowledge that contribute to their career and college experience.

Knight’s “favorite recipe” for an ideal gap year includes a structured blend of volunteering, career exploration and paid work. To that he added the student’s choice of “free radical” activities.

A successful four-year college career plan is a thoughtful compromise between “what you love, what the world needs, what you can be paid for and what you are good at,” said Knight.