B.C colleges try to address skills shortages

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      At Vancouver’s hip new Great Northern Way BCIT campus on August 13, Monica Serbanescu offered eight prospective students a sweepstakes-style deal. Enroll in her $7,000 railway-conductor program, she told the crowd gathered at her monthly information session, and in four months they’d be almost guaranteed full-time work featuring a starting wage of up to $60,000 per year.

      With a generation of rail workers poised to retire, and with Prince Rupert’s swiftly expanding port hungry for folks who know railways, there are lots of jobs, Serbanescu touted. And BCIT’s program is the only one in the province to prepare students for this career.

      “There’s something about train travel,” she told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview before the info session. “And just working with really big equipment, there’s something magic in that too. It’s the force of people. You stand next to a car, and compared to the size of it, you weigh nothing. Yet you get to move trains sometimes with 100 cars or more, with only two people, and I think that’s really exciting.”

      Given that 250,000 British Columbians earn less than $10 an hour, according to the B.C. Federation of Labour, you’d think the railway-conductor classes would be full, with a waiting list. Not so. In fact, the program has so few registrations it’s been in danger of closing.

      The Lower Mainland’s public colleges offer literally hundreds of short, relatively cheap programs that can graduate students into jobs that pay well enough to support a decent lifestyle. At Vancouver Community College, for example, the five-month patient-care assistant program graduates students who earn, on average, $20 an hour.

      More fun than sitting at a desk? Lots of people think so. In the 2006-07 academic year alone, B.C.’s colleges and institutions awarded 22,778 certificates and diplomas, according to the Ministry of Advanced Education.

      With the province’s much-touted looming skills shortage and the fact that 40 percent of 25- to 34-year-old British Columbians have no postsecondary certification whatsoever (according to the 2006 census), you’d think that shoving students through the 18-month Capilano University special-education-assistant program ($21 an hour, on average) or the paralegal program ($25 an hour, on average) would be the answer.

      Despite the glitzy promises made by the programs, though, a significant number of students drop out before they finish. Additionally, up to half don’t start work in their field within a year of graduating.

      So are these courses actually the miracle cure they seem to be for ailing wallets and directionless youth?

      Absolutely, according to Hieu Tran. The 28-year-old believes that everyone coming out of high school—especially those whose families do not have a background in postsecondary—should make note of her own story and seriously consider taking a short course.

      Back in high school, Tran wanted to be a doctor. So she registered for transferable science courses at Douglas College and soon put herself $10,000 in debt. As the oldest sibling in her Vietnamese-Canadian family, she was responsible for translating for her parents and taking care of her relatives, and the pressures were just too much. Plus, she said, no one close to her could offer career guidance. She dropped out.

      “For those whose families have money,” she told the Straight, “university is great. But for those like me who don’t, you just end up in debt.”

      More practical in her second try at postsecondary, she took the two-year dispensing-optician program at Douglas College. She now works for an optometrist in New Westminster, pays her bills, pays her mortgage, and has time to spend with her two-year-old daughter. She’s upgrading through Thompson Rivers University on-line (her science credits count toward a bachelor’s degree in health sciences), and she plans to take a master’s program in naturopathic medicine after she graduates.

      It’s not exactly instantaneous, but the short course was the key to eventually getting Tran what she wanted—a career in medicine.

      Despite stories like Tran’s, graduation is no guarantee of a job. Annually, B.C.’s College and Institute Student Outcomes project reports on graduates from each of the short courses available in this province.

      In 2007, CISO reported that 81 percent of BCIT’s applied-program grads were working full-time in their fields within a year—the best result among the Lower Mainland’s institutions. For Vancouver Community College, it was 70 percent; the University College of the Fraser Valley, 68 percent; the Justice Institute, 61 percent; Capilano and Kwantlen colleges, 58 percent; Douglas, 53 percent; and Langara College, just 51 percent.

      Clearly, it’s a problem, according to the cochair of the CISO working group, Kathleen Bigsby. Plus, the real numbers are probably much worse, she told the Straight.

      “We only survey the people who graduated.”¦The ones we’ve really failed are long gone, so they never get asked,” Bigsby noted.

      Students like Tran—a little older, with some experience, motivated to work hard—are the ones who are most likely to use their short-course education, she said. That’s not highlighted, though, in the CISO data, which is where prospective students and policymakers go looking for their facts.

      Bigsby said she’s frustrated that more high-school guidance counsellors don’t promote short courses as an education solution. At the same time, she noted that fresh-from-secondary students can face challenges when faced with a career-focused course.

      “We see so many kids,” she said, “and you can tell from the pattern they’re taking that they don’t know what to do. They’re hoping like hell they’ll just hit the right thing and that will send them off on a career. We often find younger students come because someone mentioned it, or they didn’t know what else to do and it sounded good. And they tend not to do so well. And it’s sad because they waste their time, and I think your self-image suffers when you bomb out of something.”

      Tran has mixed feelings about her meandering route through her education—even though she’ll eventually make her goal of becoming a naturopathic doctor.

      “I wish people had told me before I could just take a certificate,” she said.

      it doesn’t always work out so neatly. The following short-course graduates demonstrate that reality is more complex than the simple “school input jobs output” vision for B.C.’s postsecondary system, even when the students successfully complete the program and enter their chosen field. Career decisions, it seems, are never simple.

      Krista Morrison, for example, feels she wasted a pile of time and money on courses that led nowhere. After high school, the now 26-year-old took human-kinetics transfer courses at Langara College; attended Bible school at Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford; took an outdoor leadership course in Austria; and finally earned her licence as a primary-care paramedic at the Justice Institute.

      Chris Perna says the Douglas College hospitality program helped him obtain a decent job with a decent salary in the hotel industry. Pieta Woolley photo.

      After interviewing for a paramedic position twice in two years, she was finally hired in Lillooet. From March of 2006 to December 2007, she worked weekends, shuttling back and forth between there and Vancouver, hoping to get hired at home. Soon she realized that could take seven years or more.

      “It was insane,” she told the Straight. “Paramedics have no life. All they do is work and try to get seniority. It seemed like an awful life, so I decided not to go with it.”

      She said she wishes instructors had been more up-front about what it takes to get a full-time job. “They told us in the program it was ridiculous, but they didn’t fully explain the ridiculousness.”

      Now she makes $22 per hour in landscape construction, which requires no schooling. Eventually, she’d like to get certified in stonemasonry, but for now she’s content learning on the job. She quipped that she likes building things a lot more than she liked sitting at an ambulance station in Lillooet.

      “I wish I’d gone right into trades after high school,” she said ruefully. “I wish I was really skilled right now, before the mass construction slowdown. I’d already have my own business. But you don’t know anything when you’re 18.”

      But for 22-year-old Gavin Somers, her short course worked out exactly as she planned. When she was freshly graduated from high school, she entered the stagecraft course at Douglas College because she knew a desk job wasn’t for her. Lighting, props, set-building—it seemed cool.

      “It’s a lot harder than you think,” she told the Straight. “We started off with 30 [students in the program], but graduated 11 or 12. A lot of people go in thinking that it’s just going to be fun and games, but really, it’s a lot of hard work, too.”

      Somers, who said the secret to her success is being self-driven, works the festival circuit in the summer and theatre and dance in the winter. Eventually, she’d like to become a technical director, but she’s too busy learning on the job right now to make that a priority.

      For Chris Perna, the key to his success has been managing his own expectations. The first day of Douglas College’s hospitality program, he recalled, an instructor said: “If anyone thinks they’re going to make it rich in this industry, there’s the door.” After nine years working nights and weekends, doing everything from hotel catering to manning the bell desk, he is the assistant front-office manager at the Metrotown Hilton. It’s a job he enjoys, he said, and it allows him to enjoy his home, wife, and son.

      “It’s a decent job with a decent salary, so we can have a comfortable life,” he told the Straight in the hotel’s lounge, noting that he and his wife bought their first home at 23. “We’re simple people. We’re not materialistic. I like my toys, though, and I have a big-screen TV with surround sound, but I live within my means.”

      Perna admits he fell into a mid-20s slump a couple of years ago, wondering if his job was right for him and contemplating the fact that some friends he’d grown up with in Hope had outpaced his wages working in construction. But the birth of his son shook him out of it, he explained.

      “I thought we needed to get a bigger home, a better car. We all get stuck in that,” he said. “But now I just accept what happens. Everything happens in steps.”

      Despite students’ varied experiences, CISO’s Bigsby argued that trying a career course and then leaving it is not necessarily a bad investment.

      “The universities are quite quiet about their numbers,” she said, “They probably lose a good 30 percent of their first-year students. And we do too; in fact, we probably lose more. But you go in and you try it and you think, ”˜This isn’t where I want to be.’ And that’s okay.”

      It’s a stance that others agree with. Somers, the youngest working graduate, noted that sampling is part of education.

      “If you invest in a semester, then you can figure out if it’s what you want to do or not. And if it is, you can finish the program and you’re on your way to starting your career.”

      Morrison advises that teens coming out of high school should be realistic about how much they’ll change their own minds in their early 20s.

      “I don’t think kids should expect to have one career path. You have to go hard with whatever interests you, but you change so much after high school, you end up changing what you want to do.”

      Bigsby said she wishes she knew more about students who leave courses without graduating and those who can’t find work in their field. But anecdotes and common sense indicate to her that students take the paths they do for a reason.

      “It just takes a while,” she said. “And maybe that’s just another part of your educational process, and we need to reframe how we think about it.”

      But for students like Tran, whose explorations threw her into a dangerous amount of debt, the short-term course must be a means to a well-paid end. The lesson for more vulnerable students seems to be to work hard, keep expectations manageable, and know thyself. Virtually impossible, for most folks, at 18.