Wichitans find layoff can launch a new career

02/24/2012 12:00 AM

02/24/2012 9:57 AM

Although the economy is struggling, many Wichitans are turning a disadvantage into an opportunity.

As layoffs increase, jobs depart and skills become outdated, more people are heading off to trade schools and universities.

Jeremiah Minter, 29, said he worked at Cessna for seven years. After being laid off and rehired several times (due to the amount of work available), he finally called it quits and enrolled in a trade school. After he started at Wichita Technical Institute, his former employer was ready to offer him his $24-an-hour job back. His wife had recently had twins. Minter was at a crossroads.

“It was a huge decision,” Minter said. He and his wife spent hours deciding which path to choose. “It was a real scary thing to say no.”

Minter enjoyed his old job, but he felt like it was a job, and he wanted a career. He decided to stick with school and look for work in his new career. Several months later, with coaching from his school’s career counselor, Minter landed a career job. It didn’t pay nearly as much as his old job, but there’s room for growth, and he’s still learning. Minter works all day at Roth Heating and Air Conditioning and at night attends WTI’s heating, air-conditioning and technology program.

“I’m pretty happy,” Minter said. “I made the right decision.”

Like Minter, many Kansans are deciding on a new career after being laid off one too many times.

In December, the Kansas Department of Labor recorded the Wichita metropolitan area’s unemployment rate as 6.9 percent, almost 3 percentage points higher than five years ago.

Community colleges, technical colleges, and universities are ready to help people who are fresh out of high school, as well as those changing career tracks.

“The most important thing is to establish what their interests are,” said Don Blasi, a licensed psychologist and career counselor at the Wichita Growth Center. Blasi gives clients a vocational interest test and together they also may determine intellectual, academic, and physical abilities. “If it’s not compatible with their interest patterns, they shouldn’t go into it.”

Blasi emphasizes that money should not be the sole determining factor of what career path to choose.

Jill Pletcher, the director of Wichita State University’s career center agrees, “It’s one thing to have a degree; it’s another thing to do well with the degree.”

Four-year and graduate degrees

Both Thong Vou Thilak, 36, and Jacob Wallace, 27, had gone into lucrative professions. Vou Thilak is an architect in Iowa who is looking to move to Wichita and become a high school math teacher. Wallace, a former mechanical engineer at Spirit, is now in his first year of medical school at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita. Both men realized that they wanted more social interaction in their career.

“Deep down I’ve always enjoyed teaching,” Vou Thilak said. “Everything I do in life is a lesson. I try to help people come up with an answer.”

Next fall, Vou Thilak plans to obtain a teacher’s license from a one-year alternative certificate program at a Wichita college.

Both men will take an initial pay cut, but both say it is worth it.

“It’s such a long commitment, but it pays off,” Wallace said. But, he warned: “If you just do it for the money, you won’t be happy.”

Many students are being sent back to school by their employer. This enables the employee to advance and learn the latest skills and technology. This is true with many students getting business and computer technology degrees.

Friends University has noticed that the five main areas that adult students want to study are accounting, business, organizational management, computer information systems and human relations.

“These are 35- to 45-year olds,” said Jeanette Richardson, Friends University’s director of adult recruitment. “These are very savvy individuals.”

The director of Newman University’s MBA program, Wendy Munday, said many people are coming back to school to obtain an MBA in order to better position themselves in their organization. Others are making themselves more competitive for when the job market picks up.

The director of management information systems at Friends University, Jason Ferguson, agrees that technology is changing rapidly and many students need higher degrees to stay competitive in their job.

“They are about to be outflanked by younger, more-educated students,” Ferguson said. “They get a quick job, life happens, and all of a sudden they realize they need to further their education.”

Ferguson said there are abundant opportunities in computers. In Wichita, he said, the largest increases in information technology-related jobs are in health care and database security.

Nursing and health care services

As with computer technology, students can obtain varying competencies in nursing, from certificates to graduate degrees.

“As the baby boomers are going to hit the health care system our use of health care increases,” said Bernadette Fetterolf, the associate dean of nursing and allied health at Newman University.

Because of the complexity of health care, Fetterolf said, we need to increase the educational level of our workforce. Many institutions are requiring their registered nurses, those with a two-year degree, to obtain a BSN, a four-year degree.

“Nursing continues to thrive in our struggling society,” Fetterolf said. Not only do we need nurses, but, she said, we also need nursing educators.

All types of nurses, physical and occupational therapists, pharmacy technicians and certified medication aids are in high demand at Via Christi Health.

“We’re always looking for top talent that will be able to deliver superior care to our patients,” said Lisa Carr, the director of talent stewardship at Via Christi Health.

Community colleges, vocational technology

Certified nursing assistant (CNA) degrees and registered nursing (RN) degrees can be earned at community and technical colleges. A CNA certificate may be obtained in as little as six weeks; licensed practical nurses (LPN) need about one year of schooling, while a RN needs two years.

The career services center at Butler Community College confirms that health care jobs like IT and computer software development are in high demand.

Manufacturing and aviation positions are also in high demand. Starting wages vary by program. Joe Ontjes, the executive director of marketing at Wichita Area Technical College, said a student can enter WATC’s aerostructures program and become a qualified candidate with a major aviation manufacturer – after 10 weeks of training. Similar possibilities lie with other programs such as AMT (aviation maintenance technician) and machining technology.

WATC boasts an average placement rate of 94 percent, with some fields, like dental assisting and welding, yielding a 100 percent placement rate.

“Every parent wants their child to be a brain surgeon,” Ontjes said. “But sometimes the most practical and highest-wage career opportunities stem from technical education.”

Because many of the students going back to technical school are older, Rod Moore, the main campus director at WTI, said students are looking for more sophisticated training.

Aviation and robotics are also in high demand. WATC is the managing partner of the National Center for Aviation Training (NCAT). A portion of this facility is occupied by WSU’s National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR). WATC and NIAR work collaboratively on some projects such as the new robotics program offered by WATC.

General growth

Despite unemployment rates, many industries continue to grow.

“At this time, the employment projection we made for the south-central region in 2010 remains fairly accurate. We projected this region to grow at a slightly faster pace than statewide,” said Tyler Tenbrink, a labor economist for the Kansas Department of Labor. “Approximately one-third of this growth is expected to be in occupations involved in production, construction and extraction.”

Students entering college for the first time should not be daunted. Some are considering a two-year degree, while others are leaning toward a bachelor’s degree.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported this year’s freshman class’s probable majors in ranking are business, health professions, biology, engineering and social services. Education ranks seventh.

Kelsea Hazen, a senior at Goddard High School, wants to study music education at Friends. She was awarded the college’s presidential scholarship, its highest academic award. Hazen, 17, wants to stay in Kansas after graduation.

“I want to be able to share my passion about music with students,” Hazen said. “I want to be able to invest in their lives and give them an outlet.”

Hazen is excited about the possibilities of her major. She is not worried about finding a job after graduation.

“People get jobs in all kinds of fields all the time,” said Pletcher from the WSU Career Center. “It’s just going to take more effort to land those jobs.”

There are things you need to do to set yourself apart, Pletcher said. Pletcher urges people to talk to two to three people with similar job titles, perform internships and distinguish themselves from other candidates.

Lately however, Loretta Patterson, the director of Student Career Services at Butler Community College, has noticed a decline in internships. In some industries, she said, it takes a staff member away from their duties to train the intern.

“I encourage them to think about who they know,” Patterson said. “It’s the personal contacts that help get a job.”

Editor's Choice Videos

Join the Discussion

The Wichita Eagle is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service