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Certificates can buy middle-class lifestyle

While the path to the Michigan middle class will wind almost exclusively through college campuses, the journey will have some shortcuts, according to an analysis of job projections by Bridge Magazine.

Some careers projected to have high demand require only a vocational certification -- usually taking less than two years of schooling -- and offer salaries comparable to those holding associate’s degrees or bachelor’s degrees.

““I have an Ivy League education, and I have friends from the Ivy League having work difficulties.” said George Berghorn, dean of technical careers atLansing Community College. “A student can finish a network Cisco certification in two semesters, and, nationally, the median wage is about $75,000 a year. And our placement rate is 80 percent to 90 percent.”

Bridge’s analysis found that, on average, more education leads to bigger paychecks.  Typically, a bachelor’s degree means a larger house and a nicer car than can be acquired with an associate’s degree or a certification. But those who lack either the time or money for a four-year degree can still earn a good living.

(Certificates hold up well against degrees when it comes to earning power.)

“Career and tech programs are still not viewed by teachers, counselors and parents as acceptable places for their child to land,” Berghorn said. “They’d rather have their child be an electrical engineer than an electrician, even though electricians can earn almost as much.

“The question is, how do we transition society to look at these jobs differently?”

More vocational certifications are earned each year in the United States than associate’s degrees, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Some jobs held by certification holders pay little. Home health care aides earn an average of $11.38 in Michigan, less than retail sales clerks.  But other certifications open doors to middle-class careers.

Nationally, entry-level workers with certificates in industrial arts construction and electrical engineering both earned more than $40,000 in 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Paralegals, pharmacy technicians, surgical technologists and sonographers all earn wages above the state average, said Margie Clark, dean of health and human services at LCC.

“In North Carolina, they’re offering signing bonuses for surgical technologists,”Clark said. “For that kind of job, in our area, starting wages are $18 an hour and go as high as $30 an hour, and even more with an orthopedic or cardiac surgery group.”

Jeannette Watkins, 56, of Grand Ledge, recently earned a certificate in aging studies after losing the job she’d held for 22 years in a downsizing. Today, she earns $15 an hour at a part-time job at the Michigan Council on Aging inLansing -- a stepping-stone job Watkins believes will lead to a career in social service.

“It’s valuable training I can use on my resume,” Watkins said. “Doors were really opened by following this route.”

It’s a route more and more Michiganians will need to follow. Two out of three jobs in the state will require some post-high school education by 2018, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

A study conducted for the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation found that workers with a vocational certificate earned an average of 18 percent more than those with a high school diploma; were more likely to be employed and stay employed; and more likely to hold jobs that include benefits such as health insurance.

“People with a high school diploma won’t necessarily make a living wage,” said Jack Litzenberg, senior program officer for the Flint-based Mott Foundation. “If people can walk away with a credential, that’s workforce development.”

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