When school fits the job

Southwest Colorado Community College tries to directly connect education to employment

Durango High School students Malia McKenzie, left, and Gabs Garcia balance a tire at the Expanding Your Horizons. Southwest Colorado Community College and the high school held the event to expose students to job and educational opportunities. Enlarge photo

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

Durango High School students Malia McKenzie, left, and Gabs Garcia balance a tire at the Expanding Your Horizons. Southwest Colorado Community College and the high school held the event to expose students to job and educational opportunities.

As tuition bills rise and job prospects remain slim, educators, parents and students increasingly have turned their attention to degrees and training programs most likely to guarantee a good job after graduation.

Sociology and humanities are out, bioengineering and computer science are in.

The trend has caused a resurgence in vocational education, and local high school and college educators are taking notice.

“Especially with the economic downturn, people want to know they can have good, solid employment,” said Lynn Urban, dean of Southwest Colorado Community College’s Durango campus. “We do hear from students. Some of them ask outright, ‘Will I get a job with this?’”

The college has begun work on two new programs that aim to promote and expand the school’s role in providing vocational and technical training programs.

Last month, the college collaborated with Durango High School to put on an all-day event to expose high school girls to nontraditional careers such as auto mechanics and welding.

The Expanding Your Horizons event gave 34 students the opportunity to learn about the salaries, projected job growth and available jobs in those careers, which included information technology and law enforcement.

Participants practiced hands-on aspects of each job such as taking fingerprints, learning to change a tire and cutting letters in metal.

The event helped participants discover job and educational opportunities that many hadn’t thought about before, said Sarah St. John, a DHS counselor who helped organize it.

“Exposing them early on instills empowerment that (they) can do any career,” St. John said.

DHS junior Kiri Gladden knew she wanted to work on cars, but she wasn’t planning on going to college until she heard about Southwest Colorado Community College’s programs through Expanding Your Horizons, she said.

Most high-schoolers aren’t thinking about specific careers yet, but hands-on activities help students realize certain careers are realistic and attainable, Urban said. Plus, agencies such as the local police are always looking to diversify their workforce, opening up opportunities for females, she said.

Growing job opportunities in another field inspired the Durango campus’s newest degree program. The new medical assistant program was created when the college started hearing about increasing demand from Mercy Regional Medical Center.

“Mercy is bringing more and more providers under their roof, and they’re hearing this is the type of employee those providers are looking to hire,” Urban said.

Countywide, health care and social assistance are leading they way in terms of job growth. From 2009 to 2011, that sector created 165 jobs in the county – the most of any industry.

Workforce demand is a main driver for the degree and training programs Southwest Colorado Community College offers, Urban said.

“If we can’t see a direct link to employment or helping employers, we’ll shy away from it,” she said. “We want our graduates to go out there and have a pathway to follow.”

ecowan@durangoherald.com

Durango High School student Alyssia Kinsey dusts for fingerprints at Expanding Your Horizons. Students had the opportunity to experience hands-on aspects of different careers at the event sponsored by the high school and Southwest Colorado Community College. Enlarge photo

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

Durango High School student Alyssia Kinsey dusts for fingerprints at Expanding Your Horizons. Students had the opportunity to experience hands-on aspects of different careers at the event sponsored by the high school and Southwest Colorado Community College.