West

SUBURBAN HANDBOOK: YOUR CAREER

You have a degree. But do you need more skills?

Justin for The Boston Globe
Erin Campbell places a breathing mask on a training dummy at Northern Essex Community College in Lawrence.

Thomas Wycheck graduated from college in 2007 with a degree in fashion merchandising, but 10 years later, the 30-year old Natick resident said it’s no longer enough in today’s competitive job market.

Wycheck recently went back to school at Mass Bay Community College in Wellesley to earn a certificate in advanced manufacturing. He hopes the new skills will complement his existing education to help boost his career.

“It’s a tough and competitive job market right now,’’ said Wycheck, who worked at Louis Vuitton in Natick before going back to school full time. “I was working in the fashion industry for so many years and I felt I was at a crossroads. It was stay and do what I’m doing but if I want to advance, I need more computer skills. It’s going to open more doors, not necessarily in fashion but finding that combination of my creative and visual side and the tech side I’m learning at Mass Bay.’’

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Wycheck is among a growing number of people with bachelor’s or even master’s degrees who are going back to school to learn new skills.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Peer tutor Pietra Souza (left) works with Thomas Wycheck MassBay Community College in Wellesley.
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Community college officials said some students like Wycheck have found that their initial degrees just aren’t enough and need new skills to be more employable, while others are changing careers altogether.

“We have students who have a master’s degree and they are not finding a job in the area they thought they would, or are working at a job and it went away,’’ said Grace Young, dean of academic and career advising, articulation, and transfer at Northern Essex Community College in Lawrence. “In some cases, it’s not that there are no jobs, it’s just that they’ve been at a job and have a different interest.’’

Young said she noticed the trend starting within the past couple of years. She said there is strong interest in health care and human service programs such as respiratory therapy, sleep technology, and alcohol and substance abuse counseling.

At Mass Bay, many students are seeking degrees or certificates in STEM fields such as cyber security, advanced manufacturing, and surgical technician. And at Massasoit Community College in Brockton, nursing and radiologist technician programs are among the most popular for those going back to school.

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Anne McNeil, dean of nursing and allied health at Massasoit, said she’s seeing people from all walks of life and levels of education changing careers.

“We get accountants, engineers, lawyers and you wonder what they’re doing here,’’ she said. “They almost always do better than our other students. They’ve had more life experience. You don’t have to motivate them.’’

She said many are attracted to nursing and other health-related fields where they can have more personal interaction in their work.

“We see a lot of people who haven’t had much contact with other human beings like accounting or business and they decide they want something more rewarding in a personal way,’’ McNeil said.

David Schafer of Framingham spent several years in the military before earning a degree in civil engineering. For the past 25 years, he’s worked with the US Army Corps of Engineers, where he is chief of the emergency management office for New England. Now 52, Schafer is nearing retirement and is back at school to become a nurse.

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“As I’m eligible to retire in a few years, I started thinking that if I don’t need to work so much for money, maybe I can do volunteer work,’’ Schafer said. “I wanted to do something more hands-on in a personal way to help people. Medical training seemed in high demand.’’

Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe
David Shafer attends a nursing class at Massasoit Community College in Brockton.

Schafer has taken part in several disaster relief missions during his career and enjoyed traveling to other countries and learning new cultures. He hopes to use his new skills in a program such as Doctors Without Borders.

“I’ve really enjoyed my career but I’m ready for a new chapter,’’ he said.

Phara Boyer, project director for the Guided Pathways for Success in STEM program at Mass Bay, said more and more students are seeking certificate programs to gain skills and become more attractive to employers.

She said Guided Pathways, which includes degree and certificate programs, is funded by a federal grant to help under and unemployed adult learners gain new skills in the STEM fields.

Boyer said the cyber security program, for example, had 25 students in one semester. The goal for the program was 10.

“Employers are asking for a piece of paper that shows they can do a certain kind of work,’’ Boyer said. “They can come here and do a certificate and gain a credential so they can get back to work sooner.’’

She said some students are heading back to school because they realize their degree is meaningless without certain skills.

“We have students who do their undergrad work and are told, do what you love and the work will come,’’ she said. “Then you realize that’s not always the truth. If I have no technical skills, no matter where I go, I’m not going to be the first to be hired.’’

Erin Campbell, 38, from Salem, N.H., earned a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology more than 15 years ago. An exercise physiologist studies the body’s response to physical activity as well as how the body adapts to physical activity over time. Campbell said there had been an effort to have it become a licensed profession, which would have allowed her to do to take a more active role in patient treatment.

But it never happened.

“I was demoted to more of a tech position,’’ she said. “My education was not worth the kind of job they wanted me to be in. Five or six years into that job and not being satisfied, I decided to go back to school. I saw myself in a very different place than where I ended up.’’

She’s now pursing an associate’s degree in respiratory therapy. She said while many classmates are right out of high school, several are changing careers. One was in the military and another worked in construction.

McNeil from Massasoit said she’s been amazed by the dedication and commitment of the adults who have taken the risk to go back to school and change careers.

“They’ve had incredible lives,’’ she said. “Sometimes when they get to be about 40 it’s a real turning point. You never saw that in my generation. They say they want to do something differently and they have the opportunity and they do a great job.’’

Justin Saglio for The Boston Globe
Erin Campbell with a training dummy at Northern Essex Community College in Lawrence.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.