More adults are returning to school to upgrade their skills. But the schools they're returning to are different from the ones they left.
It's 6 p.m., and engineering classes are beginning in two fluorescently lit rooms in the main building of Capitol College in Laurel. The 30 students who take their seats range from military employees and former soldiers to production workers at a hot startup. There is an electrical technician who needs higher-level skills to compete for a job at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, and a 30-year-old woman who has left the Army in search of what she hopes is a better career, and a 52-year-old assistant chief engineer at Maryland Public Television who wants to complete a long-deferred degree.
"When you're in the field for a number of years, as technology advances, you're not always able to catch up as fast as you want to," says Robert Dickens, the public television engineer, who put off his higher education while he raised his children. But with the coming of high-definition TV, he knows his job will change, and he wants to anticipate those changes. "I've tried to keep up, but I've seen the introduction of computers into TV more than ever-I needed to get better skills in computer languages, programming, etc."
Dickens and his classmates are part of one of the most dynamic trends in higher education-adults heading back to school for technical training to keep up in a world where old skills seem to melt faster than ice cream on hot pavement and new ones are not just desirable, but crucial. This is especially true in Washington, the country's second leading center of high tech, where enrollment in evening and weekend programs is sharply rising.
Night school is almost as old as the American desire for upward mobility itself, but the economic trends that define the 1990s, here and around the country, are giving it fresh impetus and a new look. The downsizing of the military and the rise of the Internet are massively altering the shape of Washington's job markets; military contractors have scaled back, and emerging giants like UUNet Technologies and America Online are fattening want ad sections. Technology companies are complaining that they can't find enough engineers and programmers-and driving up demand for them.
And so more and more people are going back to school.
A combination of a depleted pipeline and a cohort of middle-aged engineers whose skills need updating has left industry scrambling for skilled help.
The schools they're going back to are different from the ones they left. The new world means new alliances between companies and colleges to deliver courses tailored to the companies' needs. It means new types of firms springing up to deliver courses through for-profit colleges, and video classes that let trainers beam their lessons from one corporate location to another. And it means that colleges are adding new programs, and using Web-based technology that lets students take extra training or even new degrees without regularly coming to campus.
"What's changing most is the mode of delivery," says Nicholas H. Allen, executive vice president and chief academic officer of the University of Maryland University College, the College Park-based continuing education arm of the state university system. Allen says UMUC now serves more than 6,000 students with at least one online class. "It's a shift to online from face-to-face."
Much of this extra effort has been the result of a curious short-term failure of market economics. Despite rising opportunities in new technology industries, enrollment in undergraduate computer science and engineering programs has fallen steeply from a high in the mid-'80s. The number of engineering bachelor's degrees in the United States peaked at just under 80,000 annually in 1986, says Matt Doster, an analyst for the Washington-based Engineering Workforce Commission; last year there were only 63,000. While there are signs that engineering enrollment is beginning to rebound at the undergraduate level, a combination of a depleted pipeline and a cohort of middle-aged engineers whose skills need updating has left industry scrambling for skilled help.
A 1998 study by the Information Technology Association of
America contends that almost 350,000 IT jobs were open-almost 10 percent of total employment for systems analysts, programmers and related professionals. And demand is expected to continue: The Labor Department projects that the total employment of systems analysts will have doubled between 1996 and 2006.
One person who has seen the adult education market change in Washington through the years is G. William Troxler. The president of Capitol College got his own bachelor's from Capitol back in 1971, when it was the Capitol Radio Engineering Institute, based in Kensington. Now, the tiny engineering-oriented school is located just on the Prince George's side of the line with Howard County, and it caters to adults. Capitol's offerings range from a training session on Windows 95 to advanced degrees in electrical engineering. More than 20 percent of its students are women and 37 percent are African American. The students range in age from their early twenties to their fifties.
"These are not kids and they're not idle folks," Troxler says. "They're not watching the Home Shopping Network and taking a course here and there. They're not here for the football team. They're here to get ahead. No one comes here to experiment. They come here for access."
Capitol is far from alone in the field-a wide array of for-profit and nonprofit institutions are competing to serve a growing market. The School of Continuing Studies at Johns Hopkins, which has opened satellite campuses at Dupont Circle and Shady Grove, has seen enrollment more than triple in six years. More than half of Hopkins's 16,000 students are part-timers enrolled in postgraduate programs. George Washington University has opened two new adult education facilities in recent years-a Center for Career Education in downtown D.C. and a graduate center in Alexandria. George Mason University, American University, Virginia Tech, Strayer University, Columbia Union College-all are among dozens of options in the Washington area. Spotting an opportunity, the banking industry has even come up with loans designed especially for part-time students.
For many adult learners today, the ideal job is the one they have now. But more and more often, either they or their employers have decided that they need to upgrade skills to do it right. Sometimes it's a relatively simple matter of deciding to go into an existing program. But often companies-and alliances of companies-are finding that they need to create their own.
"We're just starting to prime the pump for a new way to bring people into the system," says David Hunn, executive director of the Northern Virginia Regional Partnership, a nonprofit group funded by the state of Virginia to coordinate efforts to train adult workers to serve the state's emerging industries.
In a little over a year, working with $3.3 million of state, federal and private money, the partnership has started six programs in conjunction with Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University. Two more are in the pipeline. More than 1,000 students have enrolled, and more than 500 have completed training in fields such as Java and C++ computer programming languages, database software packages like Oracle, and network administration. At least 180 graduates who previously did not have technology jobs have moved into the field, Hunn says.
"When employers can't have the four-year college computer science major, they're looking for skill sets," Hunn says. But short-term, single-purpose classes like those the partnership sponsors are not a large-scale answer, he says, because community colleges often have trouble finding qualified faculty willing to work for academic wages. Enrollment in partnership-sponsored programs is set to stay at about 700 people at any given time for the near future.
The limits of the traditional academic system are spawning widespread experimentation by entrepreneurs. In the Washington area, Baltimore-based Caliber Learning Network is building part of its business by leasing its nationwide network of video-based classrooms to corporations for training in such skills as Y2K problem-solving. Nationally, education companies like the University of Phoenix, National-Louis University and DeVry Inc. are getting more aggressive. DeVry, once known for marketing computer classes on matchbook covers, now offers an MBA.
Much of the experimentation is by companies that want to retrain their workers but not get into the education business themselves. Companies like MCI WorldCom and Computer Sciences Corp. have turned to Capitol and other local colleges to create short-term courses for their employees, and custom training has become an increasing staple of business school offerings nationwide, along with an ever-increasing proliferation of executive MBA degree programs. In a study by Hunn's group, 70 percent of Virginia technology firms said they would be interested in partnerships with educational institutions.
"The vast majority of [company-sponsored programs] are aimed at our current work force, to keep their skills current," says Gus Siekierka, vice president for human resources for the federal sector group of Computer Sciences Corp., which employs 7,500 people throughout the D.C. area. "A lot of people got degrees in computer science a number of years ago, and a lot of things we use now weren't around."
For now, night school and other arrangements are helping adults find their place in a rapidly changing economy, but that may not always be the case. Siekierka and human resources executives at other technology firms caution that they do not see adult education as a panacea for their problems in finding skilled labor. Diana Lawrence, UUNet's vice president for human resources, goes further: "Adult education sounds like an area we probably should know something about, but we haven't focused on it," she says. "Actually, we've been looking at the high schools more. That's an age where we have terrific Web skills."
Timothy J. Mullaney is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.