May 29, 2017

CT’s hands-on training schools help fill skills gap

PHOTO | Steve Laschever
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
Pupils in Porter & Chester Institute’s automotive technology class at its Waterbury campus use a spring press.
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
A nursing instructor demonstrates on a dummy patient.
James A. Bologa, president and chief executive, Porter & Chester Institute

As Connecticut's demand for certain trade skills intensifies, so has interest from pupils and employers in the 100 or so postsecondary career/trade schools, including one of the state's biggest and oldest, Porter & Chester Institute.

James A. Bologa, president and chief executive of the for-profit educator that began in Hartford 71 years ago teaching drafting/design to GIs returning home from World War II, says enrollment in its nine campuses in Connecticut and Massachusetts, plus an affiliate's three in Pennsylvania, is spiking for skills training ranging from practical nursing, medical-billing services and auto and HVAC mechanics, to motorcycle repair and culinary arts.

In addition, Porter & Chester's (P&C) roster of skills-training, plus the curriculum to execute it, continues to expand to satisfy market demand, Bologa said. It's a key reason the school is preparing to add a training module for plumbers at its Rocky Hill campus.

"Realistically, if all comes together,'' he said, "we might be ready by this fall for a plumbing program.''

P&C isn't alone in its expansion. Within the past six months, the state Office of Higher Education (OHE) has approved five new career schools offering training in various professions including computer numerical control machinist, nurse's aide, cosmetologist, building analyst and phlebotomy technician, said Bryan Mitchell, senior consultant in OHE's Division of Academic Affairs.

Moreover, five other schools have applications pending, Mitchell said via email, that plan to offer training in information technology and cybersecurity, medical assisting, medical billing and coding, nurse's aide and film production. The majority of programs approved by OHE, he said, consist of training in allied health and cosmetology/barbering.

The added competition will serve a student population that has seesawed in recent years. In fiscal 2015-16, OHE counted 20,832 students attending the 101 approved postsecondary career schools in Connecticut, down from 24,116 pupils a year earlier. By contrast, as of Jan. 27, 2017, there were 79,245 full- and part-time students enrolled in Connecticut's state colleges and universities vs. 81,415 a year earlier.

The advantages of career/skills training vs. a four-year college are obvious, supporters say. It takes a quarter to one-half less time to graduate with a skill for a fraction of the cost.

At P&C, for example, costs range from approximately $20,000 to be trained as a medical or dental assistant to $33,000 to become a practical nurse, Bologa said. Training to become an electrician, HVAC or electronic systems technician costs approximately $27,000 to $30,000.

P&C's enrollment has risen steadily in recent years as its added new career programs, said Bologa, a certified public accountant recruited to run the school more than a decade ago. Coming soon is a program to train technicians to do cybersecurity systems installation and maintenance.

The school also made an acquisition in 2013, buying York, Pa.'s YTI Career Institute, a postsecondary educator with three campuses serving students in south-central Pennsylvania and northern Maryland.

Raising visibility

While its student population has risen, Bologa says Porter & Chester's market research shows most don't know it and other postsecondary educators exist, much less the kinds of skills training they offer.

So, in addition to recruiting students, P&C officials have been searching for more visible locations. In particular, outmoded ex-retail sites located along busy thoroughfares have provided the school with ample space to expand; they also serve as ideal recruiting billboards, Bologa said.

In Waterbury, for example, P&C finished its multimillion-dollar expansion to relocate its Watertown branch into a 62,500-square-foot former Kmart that is now both an instruction hall and administrative office at 881 Wolcott St. In Worcester, Mass., it performed a similar transformation of a former Verizon call-center.

Enrollment and visibility go hand in hand, Bologa says, because P&C, and other for-profit educators, need a minimum number of enrollees to offer certain courses. At P&C, that magic number is 10.

"When we start a new program, we try to get our name out there and people get to make the connection,'' said Bologa.

Right now, electrical training accounts for the biggest percentage enrollment in all of P&C's campuses. In Connecticut, where P&C has five education centers — Branford, Enfield, Rocky Hill, Stratford and Waterbury — electrical and automotive repair "are running neck and neck'' as P&C's biggest enrollments, Bologa said. In Massachusetts, home to four campuses, electrical is big; its medical-billing training leads in Pennsylvania.

Hands-on approach

P&C pupils spend about half their time being lectured by instructors, the rest is spent doing hands-on-training. In the Waterbury campus' nursing wing, a dozen life-like dummies lie in beds, giving students the chance to simulate caring for patients.

Practicing dental hygienists have access to stations equipped with reclining chair, sink, lighting and tools for cleaning teeth. Similar facilities exist for aspiring auto and HVAC mechanics.

Over the years, P&C has revised its curriculum many times to match job-market conditions, Bologa said. The for-profit school reviews all available industry data for clues as to what skills employers need most now, or will. Other times, industry reaches out directly to the school for hiring prospects and training.

"We've had plumbers call up and say, 'we need plumbers,' '' Bologa said. The average age for a plumber in Connecticut is 61, he added.

It was on a drive-by three years ago of P&C's Rocky Hill campus that ex-Marine Ryan McElroy first spied the school.

"I decided I needed to change my life,'' said McElroy, a single father who was working then as a machinist. Tapping his GI education benefits, he enrolled in the school's HVAC training program and earned his certification. But he realized electrical was more for him.

So, the Meriden resident spent another 1 years in the electrician's program, working while earning his certification in that as well. Six months ago, Groton submarine builder Electric Boat, which plans to hire thousands over the next several years, hired McElroy full time as an electrician, earning $17 an hour.

"It's been great,'' he said of his new skills and new job.

Kevin Clark spent 20 years as an administrator at various colleges and joined P&C three years ago. Clark oversees the Rocky Hill campus at 30 Waterchase Drive.

The value of P&C and other postsecondary career schools, Clark said, is that students also are taught professional skills — grooming, punctuality, etc. — that they don't always get in the college classroom or the shop floor.

"It's real work and hands-on training in a very short amount of time,'' Clark said.

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