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A real-world education Rather than enroll in traditional colleges and universities, job seekers are going to vocational schools to learn immediate job skills

Lisa Zelman said her children have always seen her as a nurse. So when Zelman lost her job as an administrative assistant, they encouraged her to go for it. She enrolled in the licensed practical nurse course at Erie 1 BOCES.

"I had tried to do nursing about 15 years ago, but I had teenagers," the South Buffalo resident said. "This is what I've always wanted to do."

Zelman is part of a new group of job seekers who are not looking to traditional universities to teach them the skills to get a job. Instead they are looking to learn hands-on skills.

Some are switching into careers they think are a better fit. Others just want stability and security in the new job market.

"[Continuing education] is part of the whole 'How valuable can I be to my employer?' " said Gary Keith, regional economist and M&T Bank. "The old paradigm of 'I show up and do work' is gone."

Continuing education could be anything from completing a master's degree to networking events.

And every avenue for that education is becoming more important as job seekers continue the long hunt for employment -- last year it took more than seven months, on average, to find a job. And unemployment in the region has remained above 7 percent for two and a half years, peaking at 9.6 percent in January 2010, according to the New York State Department of Labor.

Perhaps spurred by that tough job market, adult enrollment has increased 20 percent in the past three years at the Erie Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), said Melody Jason, co-director of secondary programs and workforce development.

"Most of them [are] changing careers," she said. "If the economy is in a slump, we tend to see an increase in adult education."

The most popular programs for career-changers are in the health field, Jason said.

People changing careers are also looking to beauty schools.

"We've seen an upswing, especially in the last year," said Leon Tringali, owner and founder of Leon Studio One School of Beauty Knowledge in Williamsville. "People see that there's a shorter route to a successful career when you choose a proprietary trade school."

Leon said his school has seen increased interest from both high school graduates and college grads.

"I think that a lot of times people get sold this bill of good that you have to go to college, you have to get a four year degree," Tringali said. "College really guarantees you nothing."

Some of his students concur.

Kelly Grambo graduated from Erie Community College with a business degree. She spent four years as a manager at a weight loss company that went under. Then she spent three years doing sales in the hair and beauty industry.

"All in all, I think that doing hair and having a business degree go hand in hand," Grambo said. "It's something that I've always wanted to do."

Grambo said she would like to do hair and makeup for weddings once she graduates in September, possibly making use of her business degree to start her own company.

Tringali said he has 100 percent job placement for graduates of his 13-year-old school. Some of them start their own studios, some go to work in other salons.

Other vocational trades are seeing increased interest as well.

The Boilermakers Northeast has seen the wait list for its apprenticeship program grow more than 100 percent. There are 200 people on the waiting list now, said Jason Dupuif, apprenticeship coordinator.

"If you went back a year and a half ago, two years ago, we were lucky if we had 75 people on that list," Dupuif said. "Unfortunately right now we just don't have the work."

In 2008 and 2009, the group took on the maximum number of apprentices allowed, but the economy has slowed down and there aren't jobs to fill, despite the heightened interest, Dupuif said.

"We've got guys from right out of high school who are interested," Dupuif said. "We've had people from shops who have lost their jobs. They might have had 20 years in at a different job."

Most of the increase in apprenticeship interest at the Roofers Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee of Western New YorkLocal Union No. 74, has been from people in their late 20s and early 30s, said Jill Rajla, joint training education and apprentice committee fund manager.

There has been a 50 percent increase in applications since 2008, Rajla said.

"We're having more adults come in for our apprenticeship," she said. "A lot of people are out of work and they're just going into anything that's open."

Many of the jobs people were in a few years ago have disappeared, said Keith, the economist. Employees have to learn something new to be employed.

"I think you're going to see more people open to looking at other industries," he said. "What do these individuals have to do to stay in the work world?"

High school students and recent graduates are asking a similar question: how do they get into the work world?

Melissa Coccionitti is studying to be an licensed practical nurse because of the financial benefits. She plans to use her skills to help pay for a registered nursing degree.

With the accelerated bridge program through BOCES, which will help her earn her registered nursing degree faster, she won't have to spend as much time at a four-year institution either.

"Even with scholarships from high school, it wasn't enough to pay for college," Coccionitti said. "[The bridge program] seems like the only affordable way to pay for college."

About 65 percent of the ERIE 1 BOCES students go on to higher education, said Jason. "A lot of times young people take programs they see on television."

High school students are interested in health, criminal justice and culinary skills, partially because of their favorite TV shows.

Increased interest in a career and technical class is not just limited to "CSI" fans or "Iron Chef" aficionados.

Christina Christiano was studying marine biology at Niagara County Community College, when she traded microscopes for scissors and switched to Leon's Studio One. Now she is learning to do hair and makeup for runway models.

"Wherever they choose to do a picture or a shoot, I go," Christiano said. "It's brought so many opportunities and stuff I wouldn't be able to do if I stayed in college."

email: mtighe@buffnews.com

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