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Trade Schools Booming with Older Enrollees

Anita Ray has been styling hair for nearly a decade. Now, hard times are pushing her to put down the hair dryer and pick up a scalpel.

She is studying to become a surgical technician at the Tennessee Technology Center here.

"I love doing hair," said Ray, 40, who is a mother of two. "But right now, with the economy the way it is, when people look to cut spending, that's one of the first things to go."

Disappearing jobs have helped drive thousands of people like Ray to Tennessee's 27 state-run trade schools, where they can pick up training on anything from truck driving to medical billing.

Many of the newcomers at the Murfreesboro trade school are in their 40s and 50s - twice the age of the typical student there. A lot of them, like S'ari Gian, already have college degrees.

Gian, 45, is studying to become a licensed practical nurse. The Murfreesboro resident has a master's degree in music and once owned a local performing arts academy. Lately, she has made her living giving private music lessons.

"It's really hard to make a living doing that," especially as people cut back expenses, she said.

As economic struggles and unemployment plague much of the nation, vocational schools across the United States are seeing significant spikes in enrollment, said Betty Krump, executive director of the American Technical Education Association, based in Wahpeton, N.D.

In California, budget cuts have reduced classes and enrollment in technical programs at local high schools, said Lloyd McCabe, a state Department of Education policy consultant.

But community colleges, which offer most vocational training for Californians out of high school, "are experiencing a renaissance," McCabe said. Enrollment in state community colleges is at about 2.2 million, up from 1.8 million last year.

At Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, enrollment is at a five-year high, said Rich Wagner, the not-for-profit vocational school's president.

"Students feel that the auto mechanic job will not be outsourced," Wagner said. "We are seeing enrollment grow not only in traditional students straight out of high school, but in students coming back to college for retraining."

Krump said many other schools are seeing an increase in younger students whose families may want a less expensive alternative to more costly four-year colleges.

If the success of those students dispels the idea that vocational schools "are for dumb kids," Krump said, it could help trade schools long after the economy improves.

"I think that is a mentality that people are learning now, and a mentality they will keep," she said.

In Tennessee, enrollment in state-run vocational schools is up about 10 percent, said James King, the state Board of Regents vice chancellor who oversees the centers. With federal stimulus money, the centers could add or expand about 100 programs, ranging from welding, plumbing and truck driving to nursing and solar panel installation. The expansion would create spots for about 4,000 more students.

"Going to school for school's sake is not what they want," King said. "They want something to get them back to work."

Centerville, Tenn., resident Patricia Parker was laid off from her assembly-line job in March 2007. Since then, she has lost three temporary jobs as companies find they don't have enough work to keep her on.

By this time next year, she expects to have finished coursework in business system technology. She hopes to land a job at a medical office that will offer job security that assembly lines no longer provide.

"I'm tired of getting laid off at factories. I need to re-educate myself," said Parker, 58. "I'm getting older. This factory work is killing me."

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