Technical schools, employers team up to offer alternatives

In Wichita two years ago, while his classmates were piling up $17,750 on average in student loans to get college degrees, Terry Wood earned his diploma courtesy of the aircraft company he works for.

Wood, a parts department manager for Spirit AeroSystems, walked out of Friends University in 2006 with a degree in business management. His college education was paid for first by Boeing's commercial division and then by Spirit after it bought the division.

"And thank God they paid for it," Wood said.

Wood, 43, has a wife and four sons. His company's help allowed him to support his family without accruing student loans.

He is one of thousands of aircraft company employees in Wichita who owe their degrees or technical education to the five main aircraft companies in town.

Last year, while half of WSU's graduates were carrying an average of $21,000 in student loans, aircraft companies together paid $5 million to put hundreds of employees through college, said Pete Gustaf, president of Wichita Area Technical College.

Spirit AeroSystems has between 700 and 1,000 employees taking anywhere from one class to a full degree program paid for by the company, company officials said.

Gustaf, whose technical college trains a lot of the skilled workers that aircraft companies need, said the companies' spending on higher education boosts employee skills and the local economy.

Much of the money, Gustaf said, is spent to prepare new managers, supplementing their tool-kit know-how with courses in writing, psychology and team building. The result for the company is a better employee; the result for the employee is a bigger salary.

In addition, more money is generated for the Wichita economy, and the employee has a college education to use inside or outside the industry.

Other companies in town also pay for education. Via Christi Wichita Health Network paid $192,938 in employee tuition reimbursements in the first five months of this year and $332,685 between 2004 and 2007, said Roz Hutchinson, a Via Christi spokeswoman.

In 2007 Via Christi also gave $214,570 in scholarships to everyone from teen volunteers to nurses working on advanced degrees.

In 2008, Via Christi gave out $221,765 in scholarships to hospital employees.

Gustaf and Butler Community College President Jackie Vietti say that corporate money being spent on education, combined with the growth of the certification courses in technical education, has created new paths to education.

There are alternatives to going $20,000 in debt for college, they said.

Stair-step education

It's possible to get a degree in four years to work as an alcohol and addiction counselor, said Harold Casey, president and chief executive of the Substance Abuse Center of Kansas, one of Wichita's leading programs dealing with addiction.

But it's also possible to get into the business and earn a small salary by taking as few as six hours of training at Butler Community College, WSU or Newman University, he said.

And then it's possible, Casey said, to take more courses while working, get a two-year degree in counseling, and then a four-year degree, and make even more money.

And because it's skilled work in a field where there is a shortage of certified counselors, Casey said, it's probable that the company you work for in the lower-end jobs will pay for your advanced education, the same way the aircraft companies pay for educating their workers, he said.

What Casey described is stair-step education.

It's an idea that Gustaf and Vietti say could help solve Wichita's shortage of skilled labor. But it would also provide a better way to work your way through college than working part time at an unrelated job.

Instead of going deep into debt, students could take a few technical education courses and start earning their own money, with full benefits. They could pay for more schooling with that money or, as Wood did, they might find that their employers will pay for more courses.

Gustaf says the certification courses for skilled labor such as welding, counseling, nursing and aircraft maintenance have become more valuable in recent years.

The skilled labor shortage is a drain on the local economy. It includes a shortage of 400 to 500 aircraft engineers and nearly 9,000 unfilled skilled-labor, high-dollar jobs, according to WSU.

The labor shortage is opportunity knocking, Gustaf said.

"We need a whole different model on how to pay for college," he said. "This is one way."

In the six years since Gustaf arrived in Wichita to take over WATC, he has often criticized public schools, saying they are not doing enough to tell students about the job market advantages of technical education.

Some of those jobs can be obtained in less than a year of certification classes at WATC or Butler Community College, he said. Some of the aircraft mechanic schooling he provides could earn students salaries in the $30,000 to $40,000 range before they turn 19. Many are jobs with a secure future.

What's more, Gustaf said, somebody willing to take one of those jobs as aircraft mechanics or certified nursing assistants or alcohol and drug counselors could leverage their way to a college degree, in any field they choose.

"You can go up the ladder, taking more courses, increasing your certification and your wages with it," he said.

Reggie Robinson, the president of the Kansas Board of Regents, said Gustaf has been so effective at promoting technical education in Wichita that he may be a "game changer." About using technical education to get a college degree, Robinson said, Gustaf is making a good point.

'A different path'

Vietti, the president of Butler Community College, says the face of education has already changed considerably. Nearly 80 percent of her 8,000 students have jobs. Their choices of technical training at Butler are more extensive than what a university offers. And this year, to reduce Butler students' costs, Vietti offered students the flexibility to take more courses online, saving them the gas money it would cost to get to the Andover and El Dorado campuses.

What she and Gustaf are suggesting, Gustaf said, is "a different path to get a career or a college degree."

Is college worth it?

Gustaf says he's the poster boy for why the old "get-a-college-degree-to-get-a good-salary" model is antiquated.

He majored in history and minored in political science and psychology at South Dakota State University.

"And I couldn't get a job in any one of those fields," he said.

Meanwhile, thousands of high-paying skilled labor jobs go unfilled.

Gustaf is right about the demand for skilled labor in Wichita, Vietti said. "In just the field of welding, there's such a demand that after just one semester, companies that need welders are hiring our students, and we're having a time trying to get them to complete their certification requirements," she said. "But they leave because they can get a job that quick."