Erica Cardenas

Occupation ready

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After 2700 hours of relentless dedication, self-discipline and a pure desire to succeed, 21-year-old Sergio Tedregon has accomplished what he set out to do 22 months ago.

He’s the first in his family to graduate high school and earn a college degree, and he’ll soon be putting his occupational associate’s degree in auto, diesel and industrial to good use.

Like Tedregon, thousands of other students will work toward receiving their degrees this year from one of the more than 25 trade and technical schools in the state, an educational path that continues to grow in demand. From auto mechanics and the culinary arts to health and criminal justice programs, there are countless options to choose from. In fact, skilled trades top the list of U.S. jobs most in demand for 2010 according to recent surveys, and a statistic Tedregon feels good about.

“I moved to Arizona a few years ago from Hatch Valley, New Mexico, after graduating high school,” he explains. “It was a hard decision to make because I didn’t know anyone here, but my mind was set on attending the Universal Technical Institute (UTI).”

UTI is a nationwide provider of technical education training for students seeking careers as professional automotive, diesel, collision repair, motorcycle and marine technicians. The Avondale campus is where Tedregon picked up his studies and where 2500 students are currently enrolled. The institute’s national student enrollment averages nearly 19,000 at locations across the country, which includes the Phoenix and Avondale campuses.

And numbers don’t lie. Whether it’s a student fresh out of high school, or an individual who was laid off and now taking the opportunity to go back to school and get retrained for a new career, the trend of receiving career-focused training continues to be on the rise.

Doug Kinney, UTI’s student development advisor, points out one of the advantages of having such an education.

“Twenty years ago, you could graduate from high school and work your way up through the system. Today that’s almost impossible. You have to be equipped with a skill,” he says. “Our students range in age right now from 17 to 56 years old, and every one of them needs as much education as they can possibly get to meet the needs of the changing industry.”

Kinney himself was a graduate of UTI 34 years ago, and he says the principles remain the same. That is, the students receive specialized, hands-on training so they can smoothly and quickly make the transition from school to career.

“We teach five days a week, six hours a day,” he says. “So, in other words, a student receives 90 consecutive hours on one subject, which allows them to get right into the mesh of what they want and need to learn.”

Do your homework

So where does one turn when considering an education and degree in a particular trade or vocation? The U.S. Department of Education and the Federal Trade Commission provide prospective students with helpful tips on choosing a particular school or program.

First, it’s important to decide what type of technical program you’re interested in. An obvious but important question is “What do you like to do?” Maybe you enjoy repairing cars, building websites or creating exotic cuisine. Whatever it is, narrowing down your interests and passions will get you on track to deciding what schools and programs might be a match for you. Other important things to consider:

Location. Are you going to be attending a school near you or are you willing to relocate? If you do not intend to relocate, then stick to finding a school in or around your area. On the flip side, if relocating is an option, then you might want to expand your search.

Faculty. Who is teaching the classes? Do instructors hold teaching credentials and have real-life work experience?

Job placement. What kind of reputation does the school have? Does it have a successful track record of placing students into career-oriented positions?

Cost. How much money can you afford to invest in your education? Does the school offer scholarships and/or financial aid?

Funding a dream

While these are all important questions, affordability continues to be a topic of high priority to students, especially in today’s economic climate.

Veronica Meury, vice president and executive director of the UTI Foundation, addresses the financial need and support that many students are dealing with today.

“Our goal is to help provide funding to cover the gap between the cost of education and the amount of loans a student can take on,” she explains. “The UTI Foundation was created to assist in plugging that gap. We not only provide scholarships to students, but secure additional funding, which can make the difference between a student having a dead-end job or a thriving career.”

Established in 2005 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the UTI Foundation provides financial support to students. Those who might not otherwise receive a post-secondary education, get that chance through numerous scholarship programs and the Student Pantry, an emergency fund for unplanned needs.

Tedregon himself was a recipient of financial assistance through the UTI Foundation; something he says made an impact on his path to higher education.

“When I was living back home in New Mexico, I was always working and repairing old, beat-up cars, so I knew that was a field I was interested in,” he says. “My family didn’t have much money, so I depended on financial assistance programs to help me continue my dream.”

Meury suggests looking into national scholarship support in addition to seeking resources through your school’s financial aid office. And once a good match in a scholarship is found, be sure to include exactly what’s required in the application packet and go above and beyond to set the application apart from other submissions.

“If [the] application is asking for a letter of reference, include two or three reference letters,” says Meury. “It used to be that a technical education had a bad rap, but now technical education can provide a good pathway into a productive career.”

As for Tedregon, he has big plans for himself, including a flourishing career. Schlumberger, the world’s leading oilfield services company supplying technology, information solutions and project management for customers in the oil and gas industry, recently called him back for a second interview.

“I’m interviewing to be an electronic technician. My job would include maintaining, troubleshooting and repairing all electronic, electric and computer-based equipment.”

For Tedregon, the sky is the limit. “My training and career will soon allow me to accomplish my next dream: to build my parents another house.”

Is your technical school up to par?

Questions that require the right answers:

Is the school you are considering accredited and licensed?

A basic indicator of quality, although not every school chooses to be accredited. If a school is accredited by a nationally recognized agency, it means it has met certain quality standards established by that agency.

Most states have laws requiring career colleges and technical schools to be licensed or certified to offer instructional courses and programs. If a school has a license or certificate to operate, it means it has gone through a process to make sure that it meets certain standards.

Contact the state-licensing agency where the school is located to find out if it is operating legally in the state. To find out if a school is accredited by a nationally recognized agency, check to see if the accrediting agency is included in the U.S. Department of Education’s List of Nationally Recognized Accrediting Agencies at www.ed.gov.

Is it worth paying a visit?

It’s not only worth visiting the school you have in mind, but it’s also worth taking time to look at the equipment and facilities. Ask if they are up to professional standards.

Sit in on a class or two and talk to the instructor and current students. Contact alumni, too.

Look at several schools that offer comparable programs. Compare accreditation, program length, schedule, cost, course offerings, transferability of course credits, placement rates, financial aid availability, campus crime and any other factors that are important to you.

Several lists of trade schools are published by state and available on the Internet. Websites such as www.alltradeschools.com or www.trade-schools.net will provide you with a list of schools and information on courses, degrees and programs.

Sources – U.S. Department of Education (www.ed.gov), www.alltradeschools.com, www.trade-schools.net

In the market for a new career?

A few options for those seeking to retool

Maricopa Skill Center – www.maricopaskillcenter.com
Electrician worker with introduction to HVAC certificate: Work as a skilled assistant to HVAC technicians and installers.  Graduates can be OSHA-10 and Part 602 certified. Total hours: 693; cost: $3,895.80.

Aesthetician certificate: Specialize in providing skin care and beauty-related services. Possible career paths: aesthetician, skin care specialist, wax technician, makeup artist. Total hours: 663; cost: $4,167.80.

Southwest Skill Center – www.estrellamountain.edu/swsc
Emergency medical technology (EMT) program: The EMT program is the first step toward a firefighter career. Includes training in techniques of emergency care, stabilization and immobilization of victim’s illness and injuries. Total hours: 132; cost: $737.20.

American Institute of Technology – www.ait-schools.com
Truck driver training program. Train and practice for the Commercial Driver’s License test. Truck driver training programs include professional, commercial, diesel and truck driving. Tuition cost and hours vary. Visit the AIT website for more information.

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