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Career schools see upswing

• Would-be workers seek training away from four-year colleges Programs expand as the rough economy drives enrollment up

Fairview resident Carol Sumaray is an unemployed single mother whose rŽsumŽ thus far includes pumping gas, working as a hotel clerk and filing medical records at Woodland Park Hospital.

Sumaray, 34, tried several times to jump-start her career at area community colleges, only to be thwarted by financial aid timelines and baby-sitting conflicts.

But now there's enthusiasm in her voice. Last fall, she enrolled in the insurance coding and billing specialist program at Concorde Career Institute in Portland. If all goes as planned, she'll graduate in a few months with training that could help her land a job in the field of allied health care.

'I'm excited,' she said. 'I've always enjoyed working in the medical field.'

Whether Sumaray finds a job at the end of her nine-month course of study remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that the state's economic slump and high unemployment have helped drive enrollment and new program offerings at career schools like Concorde, making them viable options for a range of job seekers.

'They definitely factor in,' said Brenda Turner, an occupational economist with the Oregon Employment Department. 'There are a number of occupations (for which) the primary source of training is through private career schools in the state.'

'There's no question about it,' said Kevin Lambert, executive campus director at Concorde. 'When people are laid off É while they're waiting around, they're going back for training.'

Among the roughly 240 private career schools licensed in Oregon are those like Concorde and ITT Technical Institute that offer training, certificates and degrees in a variety of medical and technology fields. In addition to programs like real estate and information technology, courses in digital entertainment and massage are available.

Further out on the fringe are schools that teach skills such as tattooing, interior decorating, animal massage, piano tuning, midwifery and how to become a sommelier.

'They're filling different needs, and each fills its own niche,' Turner said.

Concorde is one example of a career school that's growing with the economic times. The school, which has been in Portland since 1966, offers medical and dental assistant, coding specialist, and surgical technician programs.

To accommodate new demand, Concorde moved last fall to a site near Benson High School that, at 30,000 square feet, is double its old Hollywood District digs.

About 1,300 students enrolled there between July 1, 2002, and June 30, 2003. During the same period, 495 students graduated from one of its programs. Lambert said half of Concorde's students are single, half have kids, 63 percent are over age 22, and 90 percent are women.

Applicants are required to take a career assessment test as well as submit high school records or a GED certificate.

Classes are taught by professionals who work in the various fields. Programs run between nine and 12 months, and tuition and fees range from about $10,000 for the coding specialist program to more than $18,000 for the surgical technician. Roughly 94 percent of students use state and federal financial aid.

Lambert said the ongoing shortage of health care workers is behind efforts to add nursing and massage to Concorde's offerings.

ITT's 550-student Portland campus plans to add a criminal justice program, among others, to its lineup of information technology and business offerings, spokesman David Treier said. Heald College recently added medical assistant to its programs and is looking into a dental course as well.

Along with registering with the state, all private career schools in Oregon are required to assist graduates with job placement, according to Ray Lindley, director of private schools and special programs for the Oregon Department of Education. Schools must demonstrate that at least 50 percent of their graduates have gotten training-related jobs. Concorde reported a placement rate of more than 75 percent in each of its programs between July 2002 and June 2003.

Lindley said career schools are 'always fighting for legitimacy' in the realm of postsecondary education. And Lambert said a lack of understanding about career schools' value often fuels misperceptions.

Still, career schools have carved out their niche and are playing an important role in training workers, educators say. For example, Treier said ITT has distinguished itself as 'in between' liberal arts colleges and trade schools by focusing on more practical applications of academic subjects. The schools have even begun to work their way into the list of options high school counselors offer up to students.

Kathy Treves, business partnership manager for the Portland Public Schools' career training program, said the district is beginning to consider a Canadian-inspired approach based on five 'pathways' students can follow after high school: the four-year college; community colleges and technical schools; entering the labor market; apprenticeships and military; and self-employment.

'It's time for us to back away from making the value judgment that the only path that has any validity for training is the four-year college,' Treves said. 'We need (career schools). If we got rid of them, we would lose so much of our training capacity that we'd be in even worse shape than we're in now.'