Trading up: Some students embrace vocational education on their back-to-school path

Lauren Willis, left of center, an instructor at Z’s Cosmetology Academy, teaches a basics course at the site, 2429 Iowa. Enrollment is up at vocational schools in the area as students look for alternate career paths in a down economy.

Personal trainer Terri Polacca works with client Helen Cox, Lawrence, at Curves, 610 Kasold Drive. Polacca attended Pinnacle Career Institute, 1601 W. 23rd St., for her personal trainer certification.

Jake Masters, Parkville, Mo., an apprentice cosmetologist at Z’s Cosmetology Academy, prepares to do a coloring with client Katelyn Anderson, Lawrence. Masters will graduate from Z’s in December.

Personal trainer Terri Polacca, works with client Helen Cox, Lawrence at Curves, 610 Kasold Drive. The Lawrence mother of three went to Pinnacle Career Institute to study the trade after leaving her position as a lead teacher for an area day care program.

It’s back-to-school time in this university town, but not every student takes the traditional route to a post-secondary education.

Professional or career colleges, formerly called trade schools, are alive and well in Lawrence, in spite — or, in some cases, because of — a flailing economy.

“People are looking for ways to get back in the work force because they’ve been displaced by the recession,” says Jeremy Cooper, executive director of Pinnacle Career Institute, 1601 W. 23rd St.

“The types of education programs we provide are convenient, they’re student-focused, and they’re quick. People can turn around in less than a year and be back in the work force.”

PCI offers training in medical assisting, medical billing and coding, and massage therapy on their local campus, as well as other programs like alternative energy and information technology online.

“Medical assisting and massage therapy are our two most popular programs,” Cooper says. “They’re 11-month programs with nine months spent in the building, and the last two months are done in a 160-hour ‘externship,’ on-the-job training.

“We focus on one class at a time for a month and then move on to the next topic. It’s an accelerated program, but we don’t have overlapping topics so you can immerse yourself in one class at a time.”

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Many people enter career colleges straight from high school, but there is a significant percentage of nontraditional students as well.

Joel Broxterman, 29, Lawrence, enrolled in PCI’s medical assisting program after earning a degree in psychology from Kansas University and a subsequent four-year stint at Target. He now works full-time as a certified phlebotomist at Lawrence Memorial Hospital.

“I was an executive team leader with Target. It was a stressful job, and I got burned out,” Broxterman says. “I’ve always had a high interest in the medical field. One day, I saw a commercial for Pinnacle and thought it was a great opportunity to do what I wanted to do without spending four, five or seven more years in school.”

Terri Polacca, mother of three and former lead teacher at an area day care center, is completing PCI’s personal trainer program (which has been discontinued after this summer) with an externship at Curves fitness center in Lawrence.

“I had not worked for at least a year. I’m a single mom and felt like I needed to find something that would fit my lifestyle,” Polacca says. “I’ve always been active and was in gymnastics in high school. I struggled for many years, dabbling in anorexia and bulimia, things like that, and had to go to treatment. I really wanted to get a grip on it and just be healthy. On top of that, I love to help people, and I like to help people feel good about themselves.”

Angela Heili, 37, of Lawrence, spent 10 years as a stay-at-home mom before graduating last month from MTTI-Wellspring, 947 N.H. She is now employed as a massage therapist at Fix salon, has her own mobile massage business and says she appreciated a curriculum that concentrated only on her area of interest.

“Massage therapy isn’t something you can acquire at a four-year university,” Heili says. “And you don’t need math skills to be able to do massage. So there is no point in having all these other requisite classes other than basic English and grammar skills so you can communicate with your clients. Or if you want to publish a newsletter, things like that. Otherwise, you’re going by intuition and what your hands are feeling.”

MTTI-Wellspring, which also offers a program in personal training, keeps enrollment numbers low and admits only the most committed students.

“In Lawrence, we have six to 10 students per group for personal training,” says Wellspring marketing director Jennipher Walters. “For massage, it’s eight to 12 people at an average of 10 per group.”

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Fall classes are full at Z’s Cosmetology Academy, 2429 Iowa. Co-owner and director Judi McKenzie attributes that to several factors, including the recession-proof nature of the beauty business.

“Cosmetology is pretty strong. It’s a feel-good thing,” McKenzie says. “If you’re laid off and you have to go on the job search, you still want to look good, so you’ll go to a salon.”

McKenzie says her students run the gamut in age, educational background and life experience.

“We have what we call ‘career changes’ who are usually older students in their late 20s or 30s, even in their 50s,” she says.

“They’ve done whatever they’ve done, but they’ve always wanted to do cosmetology. So, for whatever reason, they’ve decided to go ahead and make the change. We also see a lot of college graduates who have gotten their degrees because that might have been the path their parents wanted them to go on. And, this was something in the back of their heads that they’ve wanted to do. Then, we have college sophomores who come in, and maybe the four-year university wasn’t their thing. They want to get into a career quicker.”

Z’s is a 1,500-hour program that typically takes 11 months to complete. Students put in 36 hours a week between the classroom and the school’s salon. Eighty percent of the training is devoted to technical skills, while 20 percent is on business skills, such as marketing and building a clientele.

“We even do a project where they have to create a salon from scratch,” McKenzie says.

Tuition at Z’s is just over $14,000, including instruction, books and all the necessary kits. Total enrollment costs at PCI range from $12,000 to $17,000, depending on the program. At Wellspring, tuition and supplies run anywhere from $7,000 to $15,000. Scholarships and grants are available at both accredited institutions.

Heili, who operates a dog training business on the side, says the cost of her post-secondary education at Wellspring wasn’t cheap, but that was something she considered going in.

“If you’re going to spend that much money on a program, you better have a way to recoup that cost,” she says. “My husband and I definitely sat down and thought, ‘OK, so this is how much I need to make a month in order to pay for this.’ It’s just part of the business. You roll it into your business cost.”