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By Danielle Prieur

ORLANDO, Fla. — Cory Orr was working 70 hours a week in three jobs, often pulling double shifts at the chain restaurant where he was assistant kitchen manager. A divorced dad, he was raising three kids and a younger sister but worked so many weekends that he seldom saw them. At 38, he could count on one hand the number of vacations he’d taken.

But Orr was finally nearing a promotion at the restaurant and closing in on the salary he wanted. If he could just keep going, he thought, “in a couple of years, I can slow down.”

Then came Covid-19, which cost Orlando more than 30 percent of its hospitality jobs — including his.  

“My financial situation obviously flip-flopped,” Orr said dryly. To help pay the rent, he got a roommate. He took any work he could. It was “better than being home and going through your savings.”

Orr recounts this with surprising good humor, early in the morning in a brightly lighted classroom at the Valencia College Center for Accelerated Training. Rather than slowing down, he’s speeding up — racing through the 616 hours of study and lab time he needs to get the certification that he hopes will open a new chapter in his life as an industrial maintenance technician. That’s much faster than the two years it often takes.

People who work in this field keep high-tech factories and warehouses running, maintain robots and work in the aerospace and defense industries. Such jobs pay much more than toiling away in a kitchen and are in such high demand around Orlando that employers are as impatient for workers as workers are for jobs.

Orr and his classmates are among the millions of Americans fed up with their careers and seeking new ones. But this group has something many other prospective job-switchers can’t find: hyperfast training to help them do it quickly.

Even if they weren’t forced to, 4.2 million Americans quit their jobs in October, on top of 4.4 million who walked away in September and 4.3 million in August.  

A tiny handful of colleges and universities are now letting students work toward their credentials more or less full time, starting whenever they want instead of waiting for academic semesters to roll around. At Valencia, that means they finish training in from four to 22 weeks on their way to jobs in information technology, advanced manufacturing, construction, welding, health care and transportation and logistics.

Instead of languishing for years taking one or two classes at a time at night or on the weekends, Orr spends seven hours a day here, four days a week. He started in late September and will be finished in mid February.

“I couldn’t afford to just stop and go to school for two years,” he said. “There’s just no way. I want to get to my goal as quickly as possible.”

Related: A surprise for America’s many career switchers: They need to go back to school 

While conventional education institutions have long offered what they call short-term training, what they often mean by that is “shorter than it takes to get a degree.” Such programs still typically follow academic semesters that start only in the fall or spring and meet for a few hours a week, stretching on for months or years.

 “We’ve made a program that’s not tied to semesters, it’s not tied to the academic calendar, and you can get the same number of hours much more quickly,” said Joe Battista, Valencia’s vice president for global, professional and continuing education.

Joe Battista, Valencia College’s vice president for global, professional and continuing education. “The whole idea is to get you trained quickly and into a job,” Battista says of the college’s accelerated training programs.

“We’re breaking the model and defining a different way for you to go to college,” Battista said. “The whole idea is to get you trained quickly and into a job.”

Such so-called rapid reskilling remains surprisingly rare in public and nonprofit higher education, which generally has been slow to respond to the need for accelerated training among the nation’s many career-switchers.

The number of institutions that have adopted this approach “is still a small group,” said Maria Flynn, president and CEO of the advocacy group Jobs for the Future, or JFF, which has announced a $5 million competition to develop more rapid-reskilling programs that reduce training time by at least 50 percent for well-paid occupations.

But the demand is huge. In Orlando, more than one in five residents work in hospitality and leisure, a proportion second in the United States only to Las Vegas, and the decline in employment thanks to Covid-19 was among the highest in the country. Even before the pandemic, Orlando’s median wages overall were third to last among America’s 25 most populous metropolitan areas, according to the Census Bureau, ahead of only Tampa and Miami.

Even if they weren’t forced to, 4.2 million Americans quit their jobs in October according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on top of 4.4 million who walked away in September and 4.3 million in August.  

“They don’t want to work two or three or four jobs,” Battista said. “They want family-sustaining jobs, with benefits. And they want to get trained quickly.”

Students in a construction program at the Valencia College accelerated training program and northwest Orlando. Credit: Tina Russell for The Hechinger Report

While the Valencia program began before the start of the pandemic, enrollment has doubled since then, Battista said. Using CARES Act money, the college offered fast-track training in the vacant convention center at the peak of Covid; in late November it opened its fifth and biggest accelerated training center, in a 27,000-square-foot space in northwest Orlando fitted out at what a spokeswoman said was a cost of $2.4 million.

Workers and employers increasingly see short-term credentials as a solution to the turmoil of the labor market, according to the Non-Degree Credit Research Network at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy. (That finding was in a study underwritten by the Lumina Foundation, which is also among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)

And to career-switchers, not surprisingly, faster is better. Eighty-five percent who graduated from a certificate program that took a month or less to complete said it was worth the cost, compared to 59 percent who spent six months to a year in one, a survey by the Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights found.

“I couldn’t afford to just stop and go to school for two years. … There’s just no way. I want to get to my goal as quickly as possible.”

Cory Orr, studying at Valencia College toward becoming an industrial maintenance technician

When Monroe Community College in New York added an accelerated certificate in addictions counseling in January that takes about half the time of the traditional full-year version, enrollment spiked by 50 percent, the college reports.

Monroe has also launched a 22-week accelerated precision tooling certificate — about half the normal time, it said, with a 50 percent higher completion rate — and 10-week heating, ventilation and air conditioning “Jumpstart” training that for 80 percent of graduates leads to entry-level jobs with partner employers.  It plans to add an 11-week basic industrial maintenance program next year.

Related: As enrollment falls and colleges close, a surprising number of new ones are opening

San Jacinto College in Texas has launched 11 non-degree programs it calls “Fast Track” that result in credentials in 11 months or less in subjects including logistics.

“The pandemic has increased the sense of urgency,” said Shelley Rinehart, who holds the newly created position of acting assistant vice chancellor for instructional and program support efficacy. “Priorities have shifted. Looking at these options for students on how they can accelerate their time to completion is more important than it’s ever been.”

Business schools are uniquely positioned to offer speeded-up training, since they already provide short-term professional development for busy executives, said David Urban, dean of the Jones College of Business at Middle Tennessee State University, which last year added a certificate in the high-demand field of professional sales that takes as little as 12 weeks.

“The pandemic has increased the sense of urgency. Priorities have shifted. Looking at these options for students on how they can accelerate their time to completion is more important than it’s ever been.”

Shelley Rinehart, acting assistant vice chancellor for instructional and program support efficacy, San Jacinto College

“We have really picked up the pace,” said Urban. “That’s something that is very, very attractive to career-switchers. People want it faster and they want it cheaper and they want it more conveniently. And that’s not a mode of operation in which traditional colleges and universities have thrived.”

Urban had just wrapped up a meeting about starting a rapid-fire certificate program for workers who want to start their own businesses.

“We’re not going to teach them everything we could possibly teach them about marketing or finance or accounting, but we could probably put together a ‘business greatest hits’ and get them rolling,” he said. “What we really need is something that could be completed in a matter of weeks or, say, a summer.”

Related: Will that college degree pay off? Now you can finally see the numbers

Advocates say it’s equally important that colleges pay attention to workplace demand when they decide what kinds of faster training to offer, and which jobs will pay off — something else they haven’t always done. At Valencia, the accelerated programs focus on occupations that pay at least $15 an hour, with benefits. At San Jacinto, new training is added only if it leads to jobs with starting pay of $26,800 or more, said Rinehart.

“What we usually teach at colleges and universities is based on what an individual faculty member feels like teaching,” Urban said. University faculty often think, “ ‘What happens after graduation is somebody else’s problem. It’s not my problem,’ ” he said. “And I just don’t think we can do that anymore.”

Workers hoist the Valencia College sign onto the college’s newest of five accelerated training centers, a 27,000-square-foot facility in northwest Orlando. Credit: Tina Russell for The Hechinger Report

Another effect of the pandemic, however — a nearly 15 percent decline in enrollment at community colleges since 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center — may encourage those colleges to add more programs without regard to workplace demand and earnings, said Josh Wyner, founder and executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute.

“At these moments of dropping enrollments, the instinct is to do everything you can to get as many people as possible through the door, regardless of whether they’re enrolled in programs that deliver value,” Wyner said.

“Colleges have to own post-graduation success,” he said, “and most of them don’t.”

Valencia’s Center for Accelerated Training in downtown Orlando is in a former T-shirt shop beside JDub’s Dub Shack and a microbrewery and in the shadow of a Marriott hotel. Students punch in at a time clock near the door four days a week at 7 a.m. “High Demand Careers in a Matter of Weeks,” reads a banner hanging outside.

Cory Orr compares this in-depth, 30-hour-a-week training to learning a language by moving to the country where it’s spoken. “Rather than you go to a school where you just learn Spanish over the course of a year or two years,” he said, “they take you to Spain.”

Eighty-nine percent of students complete Valencia’s accelerated programs, on average, and 82 percent of graduates find jobs in the fields for which they trained, college officials say — in both cases, higher proportions than for other kinds of postsecondary education.  

Graduates have gone on to work at the likes of Tesla, Amazon and the aerospace companies RUAG and Blue Origin, instructor Robert MacMillan said, at higher pay than many were making working three or more jobs before they completed the program. MacMillan said the certifications his students earn in 22 weeks traditionally take as long as two years.

Related: More people with bachelor’s degrees go back to school to learn skilled trades

At the new northeast Orlando center, workers were hoisting a “Valencia College” sign onto the outside of the building. Inside, huge bay doors were open to the warm day; students in yellow hard hats were learning carpentry while others in fluorescent vests trained on forklifts.

Lucinda Rex got a bachelor’s degree in art in 2016 and proceeded to work 60 to 70 hours a week as a restaurant server to pay off the $60,000 she said she owed in student loans. When she was thrown out of the work by the pandemic, Rex said, she thought, “I can’t do this any more” and registered for Valencia’s 22-week welding training program.

Lucinda Rex already has a bachelor’s degree but was working as a restaurant server to pay off her student loans until she decided, “I can’t do this any more.” Now she’s completed the 22-week welding training program at Valencia College.

“If you’re looking for a career change, all things considered, less than a year is not bad,” said Rex, who is 33, as the arcs of welding torches flared behind her.

Already finished with the program, Rex had stopped by on her way to a job interview. Valencia’s welding grads have a 97 percent placement rate, their instructor, Jason Becker, said. As for Rex, she said “there’s no doubt in my mind” she’ll get a job. “And I won’t have to work as many hours.”

At 21, Oscar Romo has already had more than his share of jobs. He worked at Chipotle, stocked shelves at Walmart and, with his father, did remodeling. He started learning welding in a three-year program that combined a full-time apprenticeship with part-time school. But when the apprenticeship turned out to pay only $12 an hour for all that time, he gave up.

“For a lot of people, it just takes too long,” Romo said. “They’re unmotivated, their passion goes away and they end up quitting.”

At 21, Oscar Romo has finished the welding training program at Valencia College in 22 weeks and is starting a job that pays $17 an hour, with a raise after three months. Credit: Tina Russell for The Hechinger Report

Now finished with the welding program at Valencia after 22 weeks, he’s starting a job that pays $17 an hour, with a raise after three months.

Romo heard about Valencia’s accelerated training when he happened upon a former teacher while stopped at a red light. Orr learned of it from a speaker at a Christian men’s group breakfast he was catering.

Which exemplifies a problem with accelerated training, its boosters said: Except by coincidence or accident, few people know it exists.

“As a nation we just do not have the career navigation tools that learners and workers need,” said JFF’s Flynn. “We don’t have a great transparent system to help people truly understand what their options are and what the training requirements are that are aligned with those options.”

Related: A surprising reason keeping students from finishing college: A lack of transportation

If more conventional colleges don’t speed up their training and connect it with jobs that pay a decent wage, plus benefits, they’ll lose out on this trend.

 “We will continue to see workarounds. We will continue to see the growth of new types of training providers outside of the traditional system” such as bootcamps and private, for-profit colleges that have long had consumer-friendly attributes, such as rolling starts but are also often less successful and more expensive for students. “We will continue to see companies that build their own solutions in house.”

It’s all a matter of supply and demand, she said. And “the market might get to a point where they’re not willing to wait for the traditional public systems to come around.”

This story about rapid reskilling was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Jon Marcus writes and edits stories about, and helps plan coverage of, higher education. A former magazine editor, he has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Wired, Medium.com...

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