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Certificate programs increasing in popularity

For those short on time and funds, certificate programs offer an alternative way to train for better paying careers

Josh Reynolds for the Boston Globe

Tauana Benevides of Georgetown, Roya Dastjerdi of Salem, and Dimitra Ioannou of Andover (left to right) learn how to take vital signs during a Salem State medical assistant course.

Yumeri Gonzalez got the phone call at 3:45 p.m. All she had to do was reshuffle her work schedule, arrange for child care, and fight traffic to make it to Salem State University by 6 p.m., and she would get a seat in the medical assistant program for which she had been wait listed.

Gonazlez, 31, made it. Now, six months later, she is working as a medical assistant in a pediatric office in Malden. The certificate she earned at Salem State allowed her to advance from her former job as a medical office clerk and increase her pay by almost $10,000 per year.

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“I enjoy it more,’’ she said. “I’m helping and working with the patients more closely - and the money is better.’’

Health care is just one of several fields in which short-term certificate programs can help workers establish or advance careers. More schools, from community colleges to elite private universities, are offering certificate programs, with the most popular preparing students for work in growing fields such health care, elder care, and specialized Web design.

Harvard University Extension School, for example, started offering certificate courses for the first time last fall. Interest has been strongest so far in the strategic management certificate, a business-focused program that offers classes in economics, dealing with crisis and conflict, and team management, said Michael Shinagel, extension school dean.

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Also popular, he said, are the sustainability certificate, which teaches students to design and implement environmentally friendly practices, and the Web technologies program, which offers hands-on classes in website development.

“The certificates were created in response to interest from students who didn’t need a full degree program,’’ Shinagel said.

Certificate programs have become more popular in recent years because they offer a way to advance skills and careers without spending the time and money to obtain a degree. While a bachelor’s degree typically takes at least four years to earn, and an associate’s degree at least two, certificate programs can often be completed in a year or less.

The cost is lower too. At Salem State, for example, one year in a full-time degree program costs $7,700; complete certificate programs can cost as little as $1,000.

A certificate, of course, is not equivalent to a degree, and employers may still prefer an associate’s, bachelor’s, or graduate degree. But certificate programs are excellent options for people with jobs and families who want to take a first step toward a degree or learn specific skills to further their careers.

“A certificate program really helps with career enhancement,’’ said Philip DiSalvio, dean of University College at University of Massachusetts Boston. “It’s a fairly easy way to get the knowledge.’’

In addition, certificate programs are often attuned to changes in the job market and geared toward industries with strong demand for workers. Pending approval, Quincy College will be adding a new certificate program in biotechnology and compliance in the fall of 2013, to help meet the workforce needs of growing biomedical and pharmaceutical industries.

“We’re always looking for the next certificates,’’ said school spokesman Taggart Boyle. “We keep up with the market trends.’’

The program will include laboratory classes in life and chemical sciences, as well as training in biomanufacturing and industry practices. Graduates can find jobs as manufacturing, quality control, or instrumentation technicians, according to the school.

Programs in health care, which seems to always have openings for qualified candidates, are perennially popular, said Andrea Swirka, associate director of professional and community enrichment programs at Salem State. She pointed to the college’s clinical medical assistant program — which Gonzalez attended — as well as courses training phlebotomists, who draw blood, and pharmacy technicians. The courses are generally at or near capacity.

“It’s because that’s where the jobs are,’’ said Swirka. “There are jobs opening up in nursing homes and hospitals and physicians groups, and that’s just going to keep increasing.’’

Online programs, which give students greater flexibility and more options, are also becoming common. UMass Boston offers 23 online certificate programs, up from 17 five years ago.

With the growth in the elderly population, programs in gerontology are “very big,’’ said UMass Boston’s DiSalvio. The school offers two undergraduate certificates and two graduate certificates in specialties related to gerontology, all available online.

The undergraduate certificates prepare students for jobs such as case management or admissions at nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and home care agencies. The graduate certificates offer specialized training for nurses and others already working with aging populations.

The university has also seen strong interest in its online program in instructional technology design, DiSalvio said. The program teaches students to create interactive, multimedia teaching tools and develop curriculum - skills that are in growing demand as online education becomes more mainstream.

Connecticut resident Ken Carlson enrolled in the program as a way to combine his interest in education with his experience as a graphic designer, and take his career in a new direction. He had considered a more traditional graduate program, but realized it would be hard to work around the demands of his job as a graphic designer at a pharmaceutical company.

Carlson has completed three of five courses required for the certificate, and already finds his new knowledge useful at his job, where he is helping build internal training modules. When he finishes, he intends to continue on to the university’s master’s program in instructional design. “The trend in corporate America and in education systems is definitely going online,’’ he said.

Across the board, college officials agreed, it is pragmatism that drives interest in certificate programs, as students seek out practical instruction in fields with promising futures.

That’s true for Gonzalez, the medical assistant. Beyond the professional satisfaction and improved earnings, the Malden resident is also less anxious about her career prospects.

“I am more marketable now,’’ she said. “There are medical assistant jobs everywhere. I can pretty much work anywhere.’’

Sarah Shemkus can be reached at seshemkus@yahoo.com.
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