More people with bachelor’s degrees go back to school to learn skilled trades

Trend highlights how some students who get four-year educations don’t use them

SCARBOROUGH, Maine — Putting on hazmat gear for the first time turns out to be a long-drawn-out process, so the trainees who are practicing this new skill make the time go faster with a little clowning around.

“Smile! Work it! Work it!” one shouts at a classmate as she jokingly strikes glamour poses for photos in a heavy vapor suit with rubber boots, two layers of gloves, a respirator and a 26-pound breathing tank. Another compares the get-up to the uniforms worn by the child-detection agents in the movie “Monsters, Inc.”

Spread out in a parking lot beside a fire station, these congenial twenty- and thirtysomethings are enrolled in a community college program to become firefighters.

Four of the five in this group have something else in common: They previously earned bachelor’s degrees, even though they’ve now returned to school to prepare for a job that doesn’t require one.

“I was part of that generation that was told to go to college, so that’s what I did,” one, Michael Kelly, said with a shrug. “That’s what we were supposed to do.”

But after getting a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of New England — for which he’s still paying off his student loans — Kelly realized that what he actually wanted to do was become a firefighter; after all, he said, unlike a politician, no one is ever angry to see a firefighter show up.

“I spent a lot of money to end up doing … this,” said Kelly, who is now 28, as his colleagues stowed the equipment before they filed back into a classroom.

A lot of other people also have invested time and money getting four-year degrees only to return for career and technical education in fields ranging from firefighting to automation to nursing, in which jobs are relatively plentiful and salaries and benefits comparatively good, but which require faster and far less costly certificates and associate degrees.

First-year nurses with associate degrees can make $80,200 a year and up and first-year electrical and power transmission installers, who also need associate degrees, $80,400 — more than some graduates of Harvard with not just bachelor’s, but master’s degrees.

One in 12 students now at community colleges — or more than 940,000 — previously earned a bachelor’s degree, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. And even as college and university enrollment overall declines, some career and technical education programs are reporting growth, and anticipating more of it.

“I thought I was the only one following this road, but apparently a lot of people are,” said Noor Al-Hamdani, 26, who is getting an associate degree in nursing at Fresno City College, a community college, after having already earned a bachelor’s degree in public health from California State University, Fresno.

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