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Experts say four-year degree not essential for career success

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Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011

Joseph Pekala was in his second semester of college when he realized the four-year route wasn't his best career choice.

Pekala, 25, of Robinson, said he felt lost in college and preferred a hands-on learning approach. He quit after finishing his freshman year and enrolled in the Pittsburgh Technical Institute in North Fayette. He graduated in 2008 with an associate degree in science and has been working in the information technology field ever since.

"My recommendation, honestly, would be a two-year school" for most high-school graduates, said Pekala, a computer network analyst at Point Park University, Downtown. "When I came out of school, I was prepared to enter the real world."

Experts agree that college is not the best choice for everyone. In fact, people with two-year degrees have a better chance at finding work in the Pittsburgh region these days than those with a bachelor's degree, according to Vera Krekanova Krofcheck, research manager for the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, Downtown.

Krofcheck said about 75 percent of the 1.4 million jobs in the region required some sort of technical training, but less than a bachelor's degree.

"When people say you need a four-year degree, that's not necessarily true," she said. "The type of education in demand is somewhere between a high school diploma and a technical diploma. In other words, a two-year degree."

That can start as early as high school for students who attend vocational-tech schools such as A.W. Beattie Career Center in McCandless. High School students spend half their day in their home school district and the other half at Beattie. Attendance is free, and school officials help students find jobs in their field after graduation.

Dan Ostronic, 17, a North Allegheny High School junior, said he's planning to attend Community College of Allegheny County to pursue an associate degree in heating ventilation and air conditioning after high school graduation. He's currently enrolled in the same field at Beattie.

"When I was a kid, instead of playing video games, I used to take lawn mowers apart and put them back together," he said. "I'm not a book-smart guy. I'm more hands-on."

Tom Tevis, 51, of Economy, Beaver County, said he's glad he attended Beattie in the 1970s. A mechanic at Baierl Chevrolet in Wexford, Tevis said most of his co-worker attended Beattie.

"I think (Beattie) really helped a lot because it gave you that early look at what you would be doing," he said.

The advantage to attending a trade school after high school is that trade schools typically offer training based on the job market and help students find jobs, said Paul-James Cukanna, associate provost and director of admissions at Duquesne University.

Downsides include the cost of tuition, which can equal that of a private four-year college or university, and the fact that the schools sometimes produce more graduates than a job market can absorb, he said.

"Sometimes the jobs aren't there, or their income levels in relationship to their indebtedness level (from tuition payments) is off -- so it puts them at risk," he said. "The thing I always tell students is to find the most economical pathway to getting that technical education, whether its community college or another entity."

Eric Smith, 45, of Monaca did just that after being laid off from Weirton Steel Corp. in Weirton, W.Va.

He enrolled in Pittsburgh Technical Institute through a government program that pays for worker retraining, and plans to graduate in October with a degree that he hopes will land him a job in information technology.

"Here you can kind of fast-track back in the job market," he said.

Additional Information:

How much do they make?

• Occupation: Computer support specialist

Pay range: $27,820-$47,130

Qualifications: associate degree in computer science

• Occupation: Pizza maker, food preparation

Pay range: $16,130-$20,120

Qualifications: On-the-job training

• Occupation: Auto mechanic

Pay range: $22,510-$55,000

Qualifications: Career/technical school graduate; update training programs

• Occupation: Associate provost and director of admissions at Duquesne University

Pay range: $100,000 or more

Qualifications: Bachelor's degree in biology and chemistry, master's degrees in public policy, business administration

• Occupation: Coordinator of student mentoring program Pittsburgh Institute of Technology

Pay range: $15,080

Qualifications: Qualified as an older student with life experience

Sources: Individuals; Pa. Department of Economic and Community Development

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