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Layoffs swell Lanier Tech enrollment
Many professionals seek training in new fields
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David Strickland, 40, was laid off from his job as a drafter in a civil engineering firm last summer after working in his profession for over 20 years. This January, Strickland enrolled in the drafting program at Lanier Technical College to help him find a new job - photo by SARA GUEVARA

High-speed rail

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When David Strickland graduated from Johnson High School more than 20 years ago, he didn’t ever expect to fill a seat in his high school drafting teacher’s classroom again.

But at 40, Strickland is again under the tutelage of Darrell Fletcher, who once taught at Johnson. This time, however, Strickland is Fletcher’s student at Lanier Technical College, and he wants to be there.

Strickland, like 1 in 10 Georgians, is looking for a job. Instead of passing the days at home searching the want ads, he’s riding out the recession in the classroom.

“I’ve got to keep learning. You’ve just got to be sharper than the next guy, if you can be. You have to grow what you know,” Strickland said. “Any time you can learn a different discipline in what you do, you’re better at what you do because of the experience.”

The laid-off professional is one of thousands of Georgia adults who are turning to the technical college system to broaden their skill set. Enrollment at Lanier Tech is up 32 percent compared to last summer’s quarter, said Lanier Tech spokesman Justin Bridges.

Last summer, Strickland was laid off as a drafter for a local civil

engineering firm and found his associate’s degree from Gainesville State College alone wasn’t enough to help him land a new job.

He enrolled at Lanier Tech in January to gain more knowledge in mechanical engineering in hopes of moving out of the civil engineering field, where jobs are scarce locally.

“Especially if I do move into the mechanical field, it will be an increase in what I make. And the opportunities should broaden,” Strickland said.

“People that are out of a job or who are underemployed is probably the most common demographic type that is feeding this enrollment increase,” Bridges said. “... It’s really what we’re designed to do.”

Within six to eight months, a technical college student can earn a certificate or diploma in a trade or skill that can help him find a job, Bridges said.

“We’re in the business of work force development and we’re also in the business of work force redevelopment,” said Technical College System of Georgia spokesman Mike Light.

Enrollment in technical schools statewide grew 7 percent — an increase of 10,281 students — in fiscal year 2009, which ended June 30, Light said. He said almost 60 percent of that increase was among students 26 and older, signaling that many new students are laid-off or underemployed workers who are turning to the technical college system to learn new in-demand skills.

And for this summer quarter, which ends in mid-September for most of the state’s technical colleges, Light said technical college enrollment is up 25 percent compared to last year. He said health care students are 40 percent of the system’s current enrollment.

Bridges said he anticipates Lanier Tech’s fall enrollment will surge past its typical 3,300 students.

With Pell and HOPE grants to offset living expenses and the relatively inexpensive technical college tuition rate of $40 per credit hour, Lanier Tech student Terry Meahl, 54, said he was drawn to the college’s drafting program because it was a bargain.

Even though Meahl holds an engineering degree from Georgia Tech, he enrolled at Lanier Tech to get back into the engineering field after a career in the military. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is also footing some of his education expenses, he said.

“I’m looking for whatever work is available,” he said. “It’s just a matter of the economy recovering enough for people to start hiring again. ... With HOPE paying your tuition and books, I don’t know why every one of these desks aren’t full morning, noon and night.”

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