Vocational schools Lead to career paths
Individuals who want skilled jobs and technical training without taking the academic courses required by South Texas College, Texas State Technical College and Southmost College can enroll at Rio Grande Valley’s privately owned vocational schools. Providing no nonsense, adult-focused education, the proprietary school courses that focus on healthcare jobs prepare students for careers in vocational nursing, massage therapy, dental assisting and medical office skills. The end result is a certificate or diploma, and the skills and knowledge to pass specific state licensing exams.
To keep their accreditation and financial aid stream, the for-profit schools must meet state and national standards for student course completion and student placement. But student and employer satisfaction is the true test.
The LVN School at Valley Baptist Medical Center Harlingen is probably the region’s oldest vocational school. Now in its 60th year, the12-month program enrolls up to 55 of the top qualifying students. The licensed vocational nursing students, whose average age is 27, spend 600 hours on academic studies and approximately 900 hours on clinical work. “The main difference with us is the hands-on, which is the majority of their time,” with the convenience of the location in a busy hospital, says program coordinator Stephanie Hamby. Six instructors with hospital experience guide students as they rotate through different clinical specialties, gaining experience and confidence.
The LVN school doesn’t have pre-requisites other than a high school diploma and high scores on the entrance exam and interview. LVN graduates receive a certificate of completion and go on to take the Texas licensing exam with a high success rate. “The employment rate is pretty high within the first six months,” Hamby says. Some graduates continue on to get their RN.
“Post-secondary education is challenging, but it’s amazing. I see people who want to change their life. I think education is the only industry that changes lives,” says Jose Gonzalez, South Texas Vo-Tech executive director. He explained that dealing with people who have a lot of issues, some even wanting to drop out, and then working with them and seeing a positive outcome is highly rewarding. “They get placed and come back and say thank you and that STVT changed their life.”
STVT, which has campuses in Brownsville, McAllen and Weslaco, cites 10-year job growth statistics to inform students about fields that have high potential for employment and good salaries. Professional massage therapy is forecast to have job growth around 22% while medical assisting is at 23%.
“Placement is essential to keep accreditation. We must make sure there is a real and continued demand,” for graduates of each program, Gonzalez says. Each program must place 70% of its graduates. Texas Workforce Commission’s cut off rate is slightly lower. Day and evening courses provide flexibility for working adults. Students are evaluated weekly on soft skills such as punctuality, responsibility and participation for a professionalism grade.
For Professional Massage Therapy graduates, the placement rate is 84%, and 63% of the graduates pass the state licensure exam. (Those that don’t pass can work in chiropractor’s offices, for example.) “There’s always a market for PMTs. The advantage of the program is they can have their own business, once they get their license,” Gonzalez says, noting graduates can work for medical offices, spas, clinics and gyms.
The seven–month, 600-hour PMT program has about 50 students enrolled year-round. The youngest ones are right out of high school, but Gonzalez says one student is close to 70 and pursuing a long-delayed career dream. Students must complete 50 massages to graduate, so STVT offers the public full-hour massages by students for $30.
STVT’s 10-month medical assisting program currently has 123 students learning skills in the classroom and during 200-hour externships in medical offices. STVT instructor conduct site evaluations to confirm the students will be performing all the skills from front office soft skills to clinical procedures skills such as EKGs. Gonzalez said student have the opportunity to specialize during their externship. Up to 25% of them are hired by their externship employer.
Before graduation, students prepare for the state exam, with the fee included in their tuition, to become registered medical assistants. “That’s what employers are looking for now, a higher standard of quality,” Gonzalez adds. RMAs can move up the career ladder to become office managers. One graduate has gone on to medical school.
Gonzalez said STVT’s Program Advisory Committee of more than 45 regional employers provides feedback on overall student performance, the equipment, the faculty and the lesson plans. “That lets us see if we are meeting job market expectations,” which is important facet of keeping accreditation. The school, which was started in the 1970s by the Rodriguez family, has been owned by Ancora since 2013. “They are pushing us to impact the community because we have a social responsibility; we’re not only here as a business. The priority is doing things right.” Students participate with charitable organization, aiding colonia toy drives, and supporting autism and Down syndrome patients.
Twenty years ago, the Valley had a shortage of qualified dental assistants, and Dr. Juan D. Villarreal of Harlingen Family Dentistry decided to start Dental Assistant Training. Today, he, along with Dr. Vivian Teegardin and Dr. Glen Thomason, are the instructors for the eight-week course which happens twice yearly for 10-15 students.
Dr. Villarreal says that while Harlingen Family Dentistry is the largest dental practice in Texas in one facility, the entire dental community benefits from a flow of trained dental assistants. Harlingen Family Dentistry’s 140 employees include 40 who are or were dental assistants. “Each dentist has several assistants. I work with three.”
“Dental assistant training, with both didactics and lots of hands-on, gives them the tools and the vocabulary for the job. We recommend 150 hours of internship,” Dr. Teegardin says. The students shadow and then work under a supervisor at the dental office.
Graduates of the state-registered school are eligible to take the Texas licensing exam. They can move on to dental hygiene or administrative careers. “We assist them in finding jobs. This acts as good stepping stone if they are interested in the field.”
Of course, vocational schools address more than healthcare skills. Ankjaer Jensen of Loran International ran a welding school as part of his business, but the training is on hiatus. “We’ve got plenty of welders. What we need are machinists,” he says. Welding training expects to rebound once LNG plants and pipelines begin construction later this year.
In the meantime, Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 853 offers classes for plate and structural welders who want to upgrade their skills and become pipefitters. Then the pipefitters join the union. The ongoing sessions, which always fill up, have a waiting list.
Adults aiming to launch careers can take the shorter, less-traveled path of attending a vocational school. Training in fields with plentiful jobs can lead to lifelong opportunities in a variety of positions.
January 2017 cover story by Eileen Mattei