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College grads seeking to retool careers head back to school at Erie Community College

Steven Janis returned to the college classroom in September – 16 years after he earned a bachelor's degree in graphic design from the University at Buffalo.

But instead of working toward a master's degree to help him advance in his career, Janis chose an educational reboot.

He enrolled in a precision machining program at Erie Community College, with an eye on landing a good-paying job in precision metal working, an industry starved for trained workers.

“There is just such a demand for it,” said Janis, a Cheektowaga resident. “They can't fill the jobs fast enough. You're going to work your way up in no time.”

While enrollment has been shrinking at ECC and other community colleges, Janis belongs to a growing segment of the two-year college student population. He's among 368 ECC students who already hold a bachelor's degree, including 28 students with master's degrees. That's up 61 percent from two years ago, even as overall enrollment at the college dropped by nearly 12 percent during that time. Bachelor-degree holders now make up 3.1 percent of the student body, up from 1.7 percent in 2013-14.

Many of them were in fields with bleak employment prospects, and they're looking to update their skills for fields with brighter possibilities, said Richard C. Warshousky, ECC's executive vice president of academic affairs.

“They're looking for a career,” Warshousky said. “The majority of them are interested primarily in the health sciences careers.”

At Monroe Community College in the Rochester area, 688 students currently enrolled have bachelor's degrees. And while that's down slightly from five years ago, it represents a larger percentage of the overall student body, which has shrunk over that time.

“Long-term this is going to be a consistent picture,” said Randy Bowen, MCC's associate vice president for enrollment management.

Some are working and need more classroom experience to keep abreast of changes in the field, he added.

Others have humanities degrees and couldn't find viable employment because they need more technical skills.

“They graduate and realize, 'Wow, there's not a whole lot I can do with English lit at this point,' ” Bowen said.

Nursing a popular field

At ECC, programs in nursing, occupational therapy assistant, dental hygiene and clinical laboratory technician are among the most popular for students who possess four-year degrees.

Eliza Muench of Kenmore enrolled in the college's respiratory care program in 2014 and is on track to get her associate's degree in May. She also has a bachelor's degree from the State University of New York at Fredonia, where she studied communication and theater. Muench intended to pursue a career in public relations, but that field isn't bursting with opportunities, at least not in Western New York. Her first job after graduating from Fredonia in 2011 was as an event coordinator. For the past three years, Muench has worked for a copier company. The firm offers opportunities for her to advance, she said.

“It's just not what I want to do with the rest of my life,” she said.

Muench, 26, worked part time as an activities aide in a nursing home while she attended Fredonia. She enjoyed the job, which was “probably was the spark” for her current interest in a health-care career.

The academic material has been more challenging than she anticipated. She had to take pre-requisites such as anatomy and physiology, courses she was able to avoid as an undergraduate student who gravitated instead toward offerings in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Instead of writing term papers – the primary academic work of her undergraduate days – she's had to memorize medical terms and concepts and learn lab techniques.

“I was definitely out of my element,” she said. “It was a little bit of, 'Am I crazy for wanting to do this?' ”

Tamara Barr of Grand Island found the coursework for her associate's degree in nursing to be more demanding than the work she did as an undergraduate.

She attended St. Bonaventure University from 2002 to 2006 and dropped out three credits shy of earning her bachelor's degree to care for her newborn daughter. She eventually finished the final course and earned a bachelor's degree in biology in 2012.

But Barr, 30, believes her associate's degree will take her further.

“The quality of the job market for my bachelor's degree wouldn't give me the opportunity to pay back my student loans,” she said. “To be honest, I don't think bachelor's degrees are as valuable as people think they are.”

Barr completed her nursing studies in December and hopes to land a job at a local hospital. She has to take a state licensing exam before she can apply for a job. Barr currently works as a hospital aide at Erie County Medical Center. If the job-posting boards there are any indication, nurses appear to be in high demand, she said.

With her biology degree, Barr figured she would have been able to find a laboratory job paying around $40,000 – not enough to pay off her undergraduate student loans and support her daughter, who is now 9. Hospital nurses start at $50,000 or more, and that's before any overtime, which is prevalent in the field.

“It's the best thing I could have done for my family,” she said.

Nursing, which is ECC's most competitive program, has the most students with bachelor's degrees: 59, or 16 percent of all nursing students.

“We were all in the same boat: Going back (to school), looking for a job that paid better,” Barr said. “Nursing is a job you can be proud of. I'm happy to say 'I'm a nurse.' I'm really excited about it.”

Changing direction

Across the country, about 865,000 students enrolled in community colleges in 2013 already had four-year degrees, according to the latest data available from the American Association of Community Colleges. That's about 7 percent of the 12.4 million students overall enrolled in community colleges.

Many of the students with bachelor's degrees returning to community colleges enroll as “non-matriculated” students, which means they are not necessarily pursuing a degree or certificate. Those students tend to be looking to build skills through certain courses that can help them advance within their current field, said Bowen of MCC.

But plenty of students are at community colleges to change direction altogether.

Paul Gober, 30, earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from UB in 2008 and worked for the university's Research Institute on Addictions for a year while considering graduate school in psychology.

He decided against it, though, and enrolled instead last January in the associate's degree program in electrical engineering at ECC. It's a field that's long intrigued the Hamburg resident. “I'm just trying to change with the times and with everything becoming more centered around technology,” said Gober.

Janis, 38, received his bachelor's degree in illustration and graphic design in 1999 and worked for several years in graphic design. But the recession, along with advances in software technology, dried up whatever work there was.

“I really haven't been able to find work in my field since 2005 or 2006,” said Janis, who is currently employed part-time at a sporting goods store.

While he could probably find graphics work in another city, moving wasn't an option with four boys, ages 3 to 10, and a wife who has a good job as a full-time teacher. So Janis looked at other possibilities – especially the skilled trades, which the Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance estimates will need to fill 17,000 positions between now and 2020, due to a wave of retirements anticipated in welding, CNC precision machining, industrial electrical, electro-mechanical technology, quality assurance and industrial mechanics.

“You've got to be adaptable if you want to stay in the Buffalo market,” he said.