“They’re great. They’re still on the advisory committee. They still started it. When their contracts come back, they’ll hire people,” Shugart said. “If the people we trained got laid off, that’s still OK with me, because skills are a durable, transferable, fungible asset.”
A certificate in laser photonics may not get someone a job at Northrop Grumman, but it can allow him to design theme parks instead of just operating the rides. That’s what happened to Jimmy Hurst, a technician at Universal Studios who spent the last year putting together graphic displays for the new Harry Potter theme park. He was already working at Universal when he decided to get an associate’s degree from Valencia. Without it, he would have been stuck in a dead-end job. He tells his younger colleagues that a professional degree is their ticket to advancement. “They’ll hire you as a technician, but that’s as far as you’re going to go” without it, he said.
This is the story that Valencia is trying to tell in a hundred different ways: College is for everyone. College doesn’t have to be four years of book learning. Transfers are OK. Part-time school is fine. Two-year degrees aren’t terminal. Employers want degree holders who are from the area, and Valencia can offer them.
Shugart is lucky that he operates in an environment friendly to his off-the-wall ideas. (He once considered inserting $5 bills into required textbooks to encourage students to buy early.) Not every college has resources to freeze tuition, as Valencia did this year. Not every college has employees who would accept the accompanying wage freeze without complaint. Not every college is nestled in the heart of a booming health care and tourism region that is willing to support it.
Not every college can do what Valencia does. That’s kind of the point. And if middle-class employment is going to continue into the next generation, there should be more places like it.
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