Service Sector Drives Specialty Schools

July 31, 2006
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Universities and colleges are certain to play a vital role in staffing the ranks of the knowledge workers heralded by economists as a core tenet of a service-based economy. Discussions of this model, however, often overlook the fact that the service industry also is rapidly growing blue-collar jobs, often high paying and highly specialized.

In all likelihood, the demand for these professions will not immediately be met by universities, but by small, localized specialty schools.

Take aviation, for instance. Whatever the plight of the commercial airlines, the need for pilots to haul FedEx freight or drop bombs in Baghdad should remain steady for years to come. There are two popular university aviation programs in the region, one in Kalamazoo at Western Michigan University and another in Muskegon at Baker University. But some students at Grand Valley State University, which has no formal flight program, still will manage to finish school prepared for a career in aviation — at a substantially lower cost.

“It’s a popular misconception, but the only ones that can issue a license is the (Federal Aviation Administration),” explained Warren Benaway, owner and chief instructor of B&B Aviation in Jenison. “The airlines don’t care if you have an aviation degree. A four-year degree is all they’re looking for.”

From its facilities at the Jenison and Grand Haven airports, the 20-year-old flight school is able to train students for a career in aviation at up to half the cost of a university flight school, provided students opt for a different degree, commonly in engineering or business.

“We have students that are going to Grand Valley. It’s a lot less expensive and they can live closer to home,” Benaway said. “This is what we’re recommending.”

Even with rapidly increasing fuel costs, the trucking industry still is suffering from a labor shortage. Grandville-based West Michigan CDL trained 450 students between its two locations last year, and with a new eastern Michigan branch plans to train at least 600 this year.

The school boasts a placement rate of 100 percent; it will not even admit a student without a certainty of employment. Only 8 percent of leads are admitted through the company’s pre-employment screening process.

“We make sure the individuals are employable prior to starting school; they usually have multiple job offers,” said Mike Birdsall, founder and president. “They’re usually feeling pretty good about their investment going into it.”

The two-week course has no local university equivalent. Roughly half of its students come directly from the manufacturing sector through Michigan Works!, the state’s work-force development agency.

“We’ve done a lot of training of former Steelcase, Bosch, Life Savers, Bissell, Electrolux — you know: the story of West Michigan,” Birdsall said. “Now we’re starting to get Delphi people.”

George Erickcek, senior regional analyst for the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, believes the success of specialty schools will be determined by the success of the industry for which they are teaching.

Trucking is a particularly strong example, he said, judging by the key role logistics will play in an increasingly global economy.

“Most predictions call for growth in the demand for truck drivers,” he said. “It’s a tough life, but it also has many of the characteristics equally important in manufacturing. I can see this as a very good transition for someone out of manufacturing looking for a new career.”

A press operator at Delphi or a welder at GM might have some difficulty transferring into growth occupations such as health care or construction. Erickcek has long held that the best fit for a displaced manufacturing worker is still manufacturing. The new manufacturing jobs, however, generally offer a much lower pay scale.

Trucking provides an alternative: high-paying jobs requiring only a short period of training.

“Now a person who worked at Electrolux for 16 years isn’t forced into a low-wage occupation,” Erickcek said. “In some respects, we’re seeing two separate roles for education here. There is income maintenance, which is good for the community, but it can also add to the industrial base by attracting more students into the area for that training.”

Erickcek has said the key to economic growth is service providers that attract money into the region from other states. Barbershops and mechanics, for instance, are readily available everywhere. Surgeons, computer scientists and top-flight attorneys are not, and such occupations could attract clients from across the country or globe.

In similar form, all but the top flight or truck-driving schools cater to students within the immediate area.

“If you look at where the economy is going — and we are going more and more into services — the most successful will be those in areas where there aren’t any established programs,” Erickcek said. “Schools that can actually bring in people from other areas to take the classes are the type of service-providers this community needs — ones that can attract dollars from clients and customers not located in the immediate area.”

While most of its clients hail from a 90-mile radius, The Paragon School of Pet Grooming has attracted students from as far away as Washington, Arizona and New Mexico for its 600-hour program.

The 14-year-old Jenison firm is one of the largest and most successful schools of its kind in the world. Its staff includes some of the top trainers in the country, led by Melissa Verplank, author of the popular industry guide, “Notes From the Grooming Table.” Until recently, the firm was the national training agency for the $3.5 billion PetSmart chain.

Roughly 100 students a year pass through the school’s Chicago Drive campus, pampering 60 to 100 pets a day. Paragon’s placement rate is roughly 94 percent, with up to 50 percent of its graduates in any given year returning to their communities and launching businesses.

“Not many trade schools can say that,” Verplank said. “We just see so many opportunities in this particular industry. If you look at how the pet industry has grown, it is mind boggling the opportunities for someone working with pets.”

Graduates report income as high as $60,000 in some cases, with even part-time groomers earning upward of $10,000 a year.

“This is a classic case,” Erickcek said. “As more and more people want their dogs to look good, you can only imagine what that would mean for a school like this. … It’s not like these schools are going to be the next Steelcase. But I think we will be seeing these small niche specialty services taking more and more of the share of the new dollars coming into the area.” 

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