Quick trip to a new career

Mark Luzaitis has traded in spreadsheets for Sheetrock. After spending more than 12 years working as an accountant for several Fortune 500 companies and earning close to six figures, Mr. Luzaitis closed his briefcase and opened his toolbox to pursue a passion: running his own building development company and remodeling fixer-uppers.

Instead of working upwards of 70 hours a week on financial statements and board of trustees reports, he's now working for himself, gutting and remodeling homes and renting them out.

To help put additional skills under his belt, Luzaitis went back to school to earn a certificate in plan reading, estimating, wood framing, and masonry. The seven-week evening courses at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston didn't take too much of his time - or money.

Luzaitis is one of a growing number of Americans going back to school to learn a trade. The classes they're taking often last no more than a few weeks or months and are highly specific - programs ideally structured to offer a speedy transition into a clearly defined field of work.

From a police officer who wants to be a construction worker to a computer analyst studying to be a veterinary technician, today's trade schools are offering new opportunities to students - often career-changers - who perceive that a very specific set of skills will offer the best means of navigating today's job market.

Some decades ago, attending trade school often meant either going to beauty school or learning auto repair. Today's most popular trade schools, however, tend to offer everything from guitarmaking to emergency medical technology.

Driving this trend is the shift from a manufacturing economy to a service- and information-based one. In the next 10 years, 18 of the 20 fastest-growing job fields will require technical education or on-the-job training, from medical assistants to computer analysts, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the good news is that students studying trades are often learning from those well-equipped to teach - instructors working in the field.

"A lot of these noncredit courses are for people who have lost their middle-management jobs, and some of them can't get a job with the salary that they've been making," says Mildred Lee, assistant director of professional and continuing studies at Wentworth. "If you do HVAC or welding, you can get your foot in the door and make some money."

Work-related courses were the most prevalent form of lifelong learning, followed by personal-interest courses, according to a 2001 study by the National Center for Education Statistics. Participation in adult education rose by more than 13 percent from 1991 to 2001.

Some may want to work toward a higher position in their current job, change careers, or go into business for themselves.

In Reyes Allston's case, he wants to earn a four-year degree. He starts the architecture technology program at Massasoit Community College in Canton, Mass., in the fall. After jumping from one construction job to another after high school, he tired of hard labor. "I have my eyes on bigger and better things," he says.

Many community colleges and trade schools market their programs to older students like Allston and Luzaitis and try to eliminate the "intimidation factor" by offering information sessions. "Adults who had bad high school experiences come back and end up being much smarter than they think," says Ms. Lee.

Some people walk into Lee's office after losing a high-paying job and have no idea what to do. "They come in here, they just put their head on the desk and cry. You try to get the easiest course for them, to show them there is a light at the end of the tunnel."

Mothers even keep close tabs on programs for their children. "We've gotten calls from mothers whose sons are 21 years old and they don't know where they want to go," says Michael Yunits, workforce development specialist at Massasoit. "They see an article and they call and say, 'That would be good for my son.' "

Technology is changing so quickly, the job market changes so quickly, says Maureen Dischino, director of professional and continuing studies at Wentworth. "It's almost as if you have to be one step ahead of what people are going to want six months from now. There's a whole trend of learning, where there's lots of people who want a skill."

At Harcum College in Bryn Mawr, Pa., administrators keep a close watch on trends projected by the state of Pennsylvania and the federal government. Officials also stay in touch with the local business community.

"The whole point is to stay in front of the power curve," says Edward D'Alessio, provost of Harcum and former president of Seton Hall University. He has converted Harcum from a finishing school to a career school. "You could be preparing people for careers that no longer exist."

At Harcum, Mr. D'Alessio has jump-started programs in nursing, veterinary technology, dental assisting, nuclear medicine, and emergency management.

Patti Thorp-Robinson worked in the computer industry for 15 years before deciding to switch fields. She's studying to be a veterinary technician at Harcum, taking one or two courses at a time. Thorp-Robinson said she made a good salary, but didn't find her job very fulfilling. She now works part time at a vet technician practice and goes to school two nights a week.

"It seems like a daunting process to change your career the closer you get to 40," says Ms. Thorp-Robinson, who has her master's degree in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania. But taking night classes, "has made my life richer."

As students finish up their final project in the wood-framing class at Wentworth, Luzaitis says he still works long hours, but he's doing something he loves.

"It's a big career change for me and I'm lucky that my wife supports me," says Luzaitis, as he measures stringers for stairs. "Perfect timing for me."

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