Matthew McGowan wanted to learn the basics, but now, he’s on course to get the skills he needs for a more advanced job, he said.

McGowan is one of about 1,700 students participating in Galveston College’s continuing education programs, said Rebecca Stout, the college’s director of Continuing Education.

McGowan signed up for the free, grant-funded course to learn basic heating, ventilation and air-conditioning skills, he said.

The course is part of the college’s continuing education program, Stout said. Continuing education is usually not-for-credit, and focuses on job stills that can help students advance their career or obtain employment.

“It’s become a great venue for people to get the certification and industry-recognized credentials quickly,” she said. “We’re not limited by a lot of bureaucracy.”

The increasing popularity of continuing education courses in Galveston County reflects a statewide trend that’s seen more students choosing continuing education as a quick, affordable and job-specific alternative to a four-year degree.

This course was a good, affordable non-college option for him, McGowan said.

“It opens up a lot of opportunity for a lot of people that can’t get into college,” McGowan said. “I’ve actually learned a lot in eight weeks. You’ve got to start somewhere.”

About 63 percent of working American adults had taken a course or training during the 12 months preceding March for additional career skills, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center study.

Continuing education students tend to be older than typical college students, but the courses are open to people of all ages, said Garrett Groves, vice president of business and industry partnerships at Austin Community College.

Demand for non-college courses typically correlates to economic trends, he said.

“It’s designed to help students find work when work is more difficult to find,” Groves said. “Continuing education is the quickest, fastest way to close that skill gap.”

Now, the community college is seeing a surge in enrollment, Groves said.

Classes are cheap, application is easy and courses typically last less than six months, he said. Because these classes are also usually part-time or in the evening, they’re popular among working students, he said.

Continued rising costs of traditional four-year degrees are pushing more people for alternative education sources, according to a 2017 University of Illinois Springfield study.

Non-degree, non-credit course are becoming more and more relevant to both high school graduates and professionals who want to develop new skills, said Paige Parrish, associate dean of continuing education at the College of the Mainland.

“When you look at the unemployment rate, it’s dropping but there are job openings that are staying unfilled and it’s costing industries tons of money,” Parrish said.

Continuing education programs are an ideal way to fill those positions because they allow students to acquire new skills in a short time, she said.

“If we wanted to start a new program, it would take around 18 months to get a credit program approved,” Parrish said.

But continuing education programs can emerge fast and respond quickly to industry trends, she said.

Last year, more than 3,500 students enrolled in College of the Mainland continuing education courses, she said.

The chance to get ahead on his career prompted Casey Baker to take Galveston College classes, he said.

Baker already works for an air-conditioning company, but the additional certifications he’ll get from taking these courses can line him up for promotions, he said.

“I want to get the in-depth and the why, and more schooling on the in-the-field experience,” Baker said.

There’s a wide range of other reasons people might take these classes, Stout said.

Some people want to try out a profession before committing to a full degree, she said. Other people want a chance to develop their own interests.

The latter group is the focus of the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Director Michelle Sierpina said.

The institute teaches classes for people older than 55 from all over the county in poetry, science, history and a variety of other topics, Sierpina said.

“I think that the fact that some of those folks drive a considerable distance to participate in our actives absolutely demonstrates that they value the opportunity to learn and grow,” Sierpina said. “We can’t diminish the importance of the socialization that occurs.”

For McGowan, the classes are the start of what he hopes will be continuing career growth, he said.

He plans to take more classes next semester and hopes his hard-earned knowledge will line him up for better pay and better opportunity, he said. 

Keri Heath: 409-683-5241; or on Twitter @HeathKeri. 

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