The Trade School Trap

The ads run in the daytime during the talk shows and soap operas. Their demographic target is the kind of person who is at home in the daytime watching talk shows and soap operas, the people who would/should/could be working if they only had the skills, the know-how, the education to take advantage of today's job market. The pitch can be attractive, even seductive, and the appeal of working in the glamorous world of beauty science, the high-tech world of computers and computer animation, the king-of-the-road world of long-distance trucking, the socially... um...dynamic world of bartending, can be intense for sofa-bound channel surfers. Anything to get out of the house with some cash in pocket, right?Look at the predictions. The U.S. Department of Labor tells us that the number of technical, computer-related jobs will only increase and, subsequently, the demand for skilled workers to fill those jobs will climb. As the variously nicknamed Generations (Baby Boomer, X, Next, Whatever) get older, the beauty industry will need more and more qualified technicians to fluff, paint and blow-dry us into artificial youth. Long- and short-haul truckers have and always will be needed to move the consumer goods for which we all slave our guts out. And people will always need a drink before, during and after work. And these are just a few of the trades and technical fields for which commercial institutes and correspondence schools offer training.But, just how realistic is it to expect these worlds of exciting employment to be opened after a few short weeks of training? Most of these fields depend upon experience at least as much, if not more, than formal education, and most employers are hesitant to hire untested, unknown applicants. There are several common Catch-22s at play here. Many trades and technical fields depend upon personal connections within the business. Sometimes, it really is who you know. One needs to work to get experience; one needs experience to get work. In the highly unionized work environment of this area's skilled labor force, the same kind of paradox may apply. A person needs a union card to work; a person needs to work to get a union card. You need friends in the business; you need the business to make friends.At the very least, a prospective trainee can make sure the school offers plenty of hands-on experience. Degrees and certificates will only go so far in convincing an employer that skills learned will translate into work accomplished. Far better for students to arrive at interviews with completed projects (samples of computer work, for instance), documented hours working (a verified log of miles driven and in what vehicles and to where over what kind of roads, for instance), or a few letters of reference from satisfied clients (even non-paying clients).Department of Labor statistics (available for a multitude of occupations on the Internet at www.stats.bls.gov) show an increase in demand for many of the skills offered by commercial and correspondence schools. However, take those offers with a grain of salt. Some, like computer work and cosmetology, are listed as requiring schooling of any kind; other occupations expected to be in demand, such as truck driver and bartender, seem to need only "brief on-the-job training."Alas, sofa-surfers, there is no easy way out of the predicament. School, no matter how comprehensive, is just the beginning for any field of employment. A degree, a certificate or a diploma merely represents basic knowledge and, without determination and hard work and a continued willingness to learn, means just a weenie little bit more than nothing. However, the same paperwork from a reputable institution can help put your sagging butt into the driver's seat of a brand-new, bright, shiny career.An area restaurant owner elaborates: "Bartender school is a start. The certificate shows you've learned the basics and it might help you get in the union. The most important thing is what kind of person you are and where you're going to work. Sure, there are things you need to know, like stocking the bar, not running out of things, not mixing up orders...but I don't think you learn that in school. You learn that by working, by learning from someone who already knows what they're doing."Each place is going to be different and you need to know different things," the restaurateur continues. "A fancy restaurant, a nightclub, a regular 'just get drunk bar,' these all are different places and need different skills. You could learn the basics [in a bartending school], but that's just the start. It's good to have the certificate but it's not enough by itself."A local bar manager added, "Monday, we had a guy apply and he handed me his application with his degree from bartending school. We laughed. That's just saying he's never worked before and nobody wants to give someone their first job."So, what can the clockwatcher do to maximize his/her foray into adult education? How can the potential graduate of a commercial or correspondence school make sure that his/her time and money will be a good investment, will actually help in starting or changing a career?According to Gina LaGuardia, editor of Succeed magazine (a quarterly publication aimed directly at people seeking adult education opportunities), there are several things prospective students of such trade schools can do to protect their interests and enhance their marketability."The first thing," says LaGuardia, "is to check for accreditation. Most reputable schools will be checked, verified, and overseen by an organization that can regulate the standards and practices of the institution."The second thing," LaGuardia continues, "is to check the accreditation organization. Make sure the organization that verifies the school is real; unscrupulous, rip-off type schools have been known to fabricate a regulatory entity in order to appear legitimate. Any school and any accrediting organization should be open and forthcoming with all this kind of information."It is fairly easy to research this information and will be well worth the time and effort. "For a list of reputable accrediting bodies, surf the U.S. Department of Education's web site (www.ed.gov) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation site (www.chea.org)," LaGuardia explains. What's this, you ask? Another Catch-22? How can you use a computer to check on a computer school before you've learned how to use a computer? Fear not. Most public libraries now have computer stations and assistants for getting onto the Internet. They'll be glad to help the inexperienced find the facts needed to make good educational choices. And, really, it's not a bad idea to start the search for education in a library, is it?The next, and probably most important, thing to check is how successful past graduates have been in getting work."Any decent trade or technical school will keep this kind of information," LaGuardia explains. "It's in their best interest to keep these kind of records and make them available to prospective students. It allows them to say, 'Look, we're for real. Our people get jobs.'"Any school that won't release information about accreditation or job placement should raise a whole bunch of warning flags for anyone seeking training. Be sure to check out the school's refund policy and get it in writing. Beware of student loans (ask anybody who went to school in the '80s); they can be easy to get but a bitch to get rid of.Some technical schools have contacts or even contracts with employers to provide skilled graduates. Beauty salons, because of the high demand for trained beauty workers, often make the first move and contact the school for future employees. Part-time work while training can turn into full-time work after graduation. Check out the personnel department of a business you'd like or expect to work for and ask them who they hire, why they hire, what qualifications they require, and what kind school can supply that.We're living in a fluid economy. We're living in technologically volatile times. Without skills and the training to enhance those skills, we should just resign ourselves to a life in the service industry. Whole careers can disappear almost overnight (talked to a steelworker or a fisherman lately?). Whatever the goal, some of the most important homework a prospective student can do is before enrolling in classes. It's true that a mind is a terrible thing to waste, but so are time and money.

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