Fresno City College career program pays off in pride, wages

The Fresno BeeMarch 25, 2014 

After graduating from high school and working odd jobs with buddies for two years, Edgar Padilla wanted to get serious about working on what he loves: cars.

The 20-year-old Visalia native knew he wasn't interested in college -- he "didn't like being in the classroom" -- but he always liked using tools and doing auto repair.

"In this whole industry in auto body, all they look for is experience," Padilla said while working in the maintenance shop at Fresno City College's Career and Technology Center.

"You can know all your book knowledge, but if you don't know how to work with the materials, book knowledge is not really going to help you."

OVERVIEW: Central San Joaquin Valley schools dive into career technical education

Padilla's story was a familiar one among the several dozen men learning to repair cars at the southwest Fresno training hub.

Fresno City College has a long history of offering training and professional certificates that lead directly to trade careers.

And a new U.S. Census report shows the types of career credentials offered by community colleges can mean the difference of hundreds of dollars in monthly wages for those entering the workforce, especially for folks without a college degree.

The January census study shows people who have professional or educational certificates can make hundreds -- and even thousands -- of dollars more per month than those with similar education backgrounds and no certificate.

The study shows high school dropouts earn $1,920 on average monthly. But those same people -- if they had a professional or educational credential -- would earn $2,419 to $3,291.

RELATED: Career tech programs battle tight budgets, college-path emphasis

Those with a high school degree or some college, and a credential, make $300 to $500 more each month than those without certification.

This type of training is becoming more important than ever, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., as many companies no longer provide on-the-job instruction.

"What's fundamentally changed in the American economy is (in the past), people would get by getting a job at the loading dock," he said. But now, to get a job that requires some training, workers have a better chance to be hired if they already have a certificate, Carnevale said.

Fresno City's career program, located west of Highway 99 and south of Jensen Avenue, offers multiweek classes that typically include a professional certification.

The programs are free -- except for book and uniform fees -- which many say makes it a bargain compared to private classes or a degree program at a two- or four-year college.

LIST OF PROGRAMS: High school ROPs, community college CTEs

Natalie Culver-Dockins, dean of workforce development at Fresno City College, heads up the career center. She said the students, who range from recent high school graduates to just-released prison inmates, are required to wear uniforms and treat their training like a job.

And it's all hands-on: students work on real customers' cars in the auto program and set fire to massive wooden structures in the fire academy. The center also offers maintenance and warehouse technician programs.

Culver-Dockins said students take pride in their work -- and quickly realize the payoff when they land their first job in the trades.

"We need to stop talking about vocational programs like it's a bad alternative," Culver-Dockins said. "Some of the folks who are coming out of our programs are going to be making $17 to $24 per hour, and that is huge."

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The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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