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Nontraditional career paths can lead to well-paying jobs in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — The old vocational model has been "flipped," a Utah tech college spokeswoman says, noting that the past's low-earning trades training is being replaced by vocational training that can help individuals earn good wages and long-term career employment security.

"The whole pathway has evolved," explained Melanie Hall, director of marketing and community relations for Davis Technical College. "They are very high demand in very evolving industries that are very highly technical and they pay really well."

She said some technical certifications can help individuals earn over $40,000 right away, which is on par or better than some college graduates can make.

"We realized we left some gaps in our industries and we don't have a workforce that's prepared to fill it. That's where the tech colleges come in," Hall said.

Talon Matern describes a project he's working on in the Composite Materials Lab at Davis Technical College in Kaysville on Friday, June 14, 2019.
Talon Matern describes a project he's working on in the Composite Materials Lab at Davis Technical College in Kaysville on Friday, June 14, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Earning while learning

Talon Matern, 18, just graduated from Viewmont High School in Bountiful. However, before getting his diploma, he had made up his mind as a senior that he would enroll in a program at Davis Technical College in which he could work toward earning a vocational certification during his last year of high school.

"I'm in the composites technology program and I'm using it to help my aerospace engineering degree," he said.

According to the Davis Tech website, the 10-month composite materials technology program prepares students for work in numerous industries, including aerospace, automotive, bridge building, marine, parts assembly and sporting goods. The typical cost is just over $2,800, but high school students are exempt from student tuition and fees. Upon completion of the program, students receive a certification that prepares them for entry-level work as a composite technician.

While Matern is planning to eventually attend Utah State University to pursue engineering, he said he wanted to give himself a head star over other students who would choose to take the traditional route to college right out of high school.

"(This certification) will allow me to get a job with Boeing, Hexcel or an aerospace company in Utah while still going to school," he said. "So I'll be able to start a lot earlier than a lot of other people. I saw it as a way to accelerate my learning and get free schooling, which really helps out."

"One thing that really appealed to me was how easy they made it for you to get your certification and how they'll really work with you for it," he added. The aspiring engineer plans to attend Salt Lake Community College to take general requirement courses before eventually matriculating to Utah State to pursue a bachelor's degree.

Some of his SLCC courses will be paid for with scholarships and he hopes to pay for USU using tuition reimbursement through an employer after receiving his certification, he explained. Being able to get into a career without the burden of massive college debt was also a major factor in choosing this path, he said.

Entry-level hourly wages for composite materials start at just under $15 an hour, according to the school's webpage. Recent Morgan High graduate Shay Jacobson, 18, is also attending Davis Tech in the composite materials program.

She said her decision to become certified in a vocational training program stemmed from the desire to be able to provide for herself as an adult by acquiring a useful skill that could pay the bills.

"I decided to do this because it's toward a direction that I wanted to (pursue)," she said. Upon completion, she hopes to work for a company in composites while taking college engineering classes.

Shaye Jacobson describes a project she's working on in the Composite Materials Lab at Davis Technical College in Kaysville on Friday, June 14, 2019.
Shaye Jacobson describes a project she's working on in the Composite Materials Lab at Davis Technical College in Kaysville on Friday, June 14, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Meeting industry needs

With Utah currently battling a dilemma of having far more jobs than people to fill them, vocational programs are one of the ways technical education institutions and industry associations are employing to address this ongoing issue.

"The programs that we offer are high-demand, high-wage (industry) areas that most students can complete in less than a year and move into a job," Hall said. "We also have articulation agreements with other higher ed partners like Weber State, Utah State, LDS Business College and Salt Lake Community College."

Besides the tech schools, industry associations are taking a proactive role in trying to attract more people into high-demand trades, particularly in construction.

In Utah, there are currently thousands of available construction jobs for men and women, high school graduates, college students, veterans, refugees and any interested members of the community, said McKell Costley, director of marketing and communications for the Associated General Contractors of Utah. She said the organization has placed workforce development at the top of its business plan over the past four years and it was high on the priority list for years before that, too.

"We want everyone in Utah to know that there are options other than college, which can lead to profitable and meaningful careers," she said. As one of the various alternatives to a traditional four-year college degree, the construction industry offers various apprenticeships, she said.

"Depending on the apprenticeship, each apprentice can expect 1,000 to 8,000 hours of both on-the-job training and classroom training," Costley said. "An 8,000-hour apprenticeship is roughly equivalent to a four-year degree."

Richard Thorn, president and CEO of Associated General Contractors of Utah, said while some may think of 'blue collar' vocations as lower paying, there are plenty of jobs that pay six figures.

"We've got folks that are making well in excess of $100,000 a year on a regular basis working with their hands or working in the trades," he said. "If you had 1,000 carpenters right now lined up outside our office, chances are really high that we'd have every one of those folks working within a week."

Similar to the tech programs, individuals enrolled in apprenticeship programs earn better than average hourly wages, plus get paid tuition, fees and books, a signing bonus as well as progress bonuses as you move through the program and a graduation bonus. For those who lived outside of the Wasatch Front, they also receive paid lodging and daily per diem to cover meals and fuel costs.

"So you're earning while you're learning and we pay for everything else," Thorn said.

Not just for new grads

Those high wages and perks are some of what led Beverly Holmberg, 46, to make the leap from working at a gas station to becoming a heavy equipment operator.

"The money just wasn't there and I needed more money than I was making so my husband got permission from the company he was working to teach me how to drive trucks," she explained. Her husband was employed by LeGrand Johnson Construction — a Utah-based asphalt and concrete company.

After obtaining her commercial driver's license, she was able to learn to drive various vehicles and operate large equipment such as asphalt pavers, front-end loaders and backhoes. She said making the switch to a new career has been a life-affirming and positive change.

"You have to be willing to go out and try something new. You can't be afraid of trying because you're not going to know exactly what you want to do unless you go out and try new things," she said. "I was afraid of the big trucks (at first). Once I finally stepped out of my comfort zone, I decided I liked it better."