Employment seekers flock into classrooms and onto the asphalt to learn new trades 4/30/1 deck • A bad time for jobs is a good time for vocational schools

For King Siharath, the last three years haven't been easy.

The 53-year-old father of three moved his family from Utah to Oregon for a job with Fujitsu Microelectronics Inc. But less than two years later, the company closed its Gresham plant, leaving Siharath, along with hundreds of others, out of work.

He quickly found employment with Precision Castparts Corp., only to be laid off again a year later.

'I looked for work for a long time,' Siharath says. 'But everybody told me, 'We have no openings.' '

After months of searching, he decided to go back to school.

Siharath is one of those fueling a record surge in enrollments at local post-secondary business, technical and trade schools.

Finding few opportunities for work, many people are going back to school to acquire career-specific skills that they think will put them back in the work force.

'When it's harder to find jobs, people go back to school to wait out the recession,' says David Cooke, an Oregon Employment Department economist. That's why the for-profit vocational school sector is proving 'immune to the overall economic malaise,' he says.

Siharath decided that his best shot at getting back to work quickly would be to enroll at Western Pacific Truck School of Oregon to train to be a truck driver.

'Friends told me the job market for truck drivers is very good in Portland,' he says. 'But I didn't know anything about it.'

Willy Ericksen, Western Pacific's owner, says increased enrollment is bringing in students, who, like Siharath, have never considered careers as truckers.

'In this economy, we're seeing students with four-year degrees who were making a lot of money in the high-tech sector,' Ericksen says. 'In the past, they would never have considered driving a truck for a living, but now they're retraining out of necessity.'

People on the same quest as Siharath are breaking enrollment records at several Portland schools, including the College of Legal Arts, where Associate Director Karin Hildum says enrollment is up nearly 35 percent from last year at this time.

The reason, she asserts, is simple: 'It doesn't make any sense to be out in the job market when there isn't one.'

But students are looking for more than general education. 'People want an education that's directly applicable to employment,' says Cooke, who thinks that most students are returning to the classroom to change careers or to learn specific, marketable skills.

Hildum agrees, saying the 150-plus students enrolled at the College for Legal Arts are looking for programs that will take them directly from the classroom into the work force in as little time as possible.

'We're a niche market,' Hildum says of the school's court reporting, paralegal and medical transcription programs. 'Students who come here don't want a generic degree. They are looking for specialized education that is going to get them a job after graduation.'

Accelerated programs

To meet the needs of students, many of whom already have a four-year college degree, these for-profit schools are offering programs that will put students back into the work force in as few as 30 weeks, promising placement rates above 80 percent.

'Our students want quick entry into the work force,' says Randy Rogers, president of Portland's Western Business College. 'Enrollment is the highest it's ever been,' he says of the 700-plus students receiving training in medical transcription, accounting, pharmacy technology, computers and travel at his school, which boasts placement rates of up to 90 percent.

Rogers attributes the success of the Western Business College model to relevant programming, a focus on the bottom line and a commitment to its customers.

'Students come to school here because they want a job; they need a job,' Rogers says.

Corinthian Colleges, Western Business's parent company, is one of the largest for-profit education companies in the country. Like other such schools, Corinthian is benefiting from the slow economy. The company reported record revenues of $135.5 million for the third quarter of 2003 ending March 31. That was up $47 million over the third quarter of 2002.

Creative financing

With enrollment at an all-time high and tuition rates upward of $5,000 for a 30-week program at any one of Portland's for-profit schools, it's not surprising that profits are soaring for these educators. Despite the economic slump, students dreaming of a new job and a brighter future are finding ways to pay for it.

Ericksen says students at Western Pacific Truck School are coming up with creative ways to pay the $4,000 tuition, including a combination of financial assistance, retraining allowances, student loans and government grants.

Some even pay in cash. 'It's a small percentage,' Ericksen says, 'but we have noticed an increase in the number of cash-paying students over the past few years.'

For students ineligible for federal funding and without other resources, the school offers an in-house financing program.

'We approve loan applications for people the bank wouldn't even consider,' Ericksen says. Even though default rates are high, he thinks this is perhaps the only way many of his students can afford to enroll.

Rogers says students at Western Business College are using a combination of traditional loans and grants, federal retraining allowances and cash to fund their education. 'Where there's a will, there's a way,' he says.

Siharath was able to secure a federal retraining grant to cover the cost of his tuition. Now, after only 4 1/2 weeks in the classroom, he has just days to go until graduation. With a commercial driver's license in hand, he'll be ready to hit the road.

'I didn't know anything about driving a truck before I came to school; now I'm ready to be a truck driver,' he says.

Siharath has already received a pre-employment offer from a local trucking company and is scheduled to begin orientation in the next few weeks.

'I'm excited,' he says. 'This is a good chance for me.'

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