Merlene Davis: Non-profit technical school offers big rewards in short period of time

Herald-Leader columnistJuly 5, 2014 

Dametrius Drake faced a lot of barriers before he enrolled in the Building Trades Technician program at the College for Technical Education in 2012.

He was an ex-offender returning to an unwelcoming society from prison, with child support payments due and a lot of idle time.

Historically, that is not a recipe for success.

But what Drake had going for him was a will and a desire to succeed. CTE became his blueprint.

"The school provided me with the opportunity to tap into my inner abilities," Drake said. "They gave me a chance to provide for my family."

Drake and Patrick Morton, both graduates of the Building Trades program, are co-owners of Lex General Contracting & Services, which was established in 2012 while both were still students there. In fact, CTE gave them their first contract, which was to lay the flooring for the Food and Hospitality Professional program, also at the school.

Since then they have landed a contract to install doors and hardware in the dorms under construction on the University of Kentucky campus. And they have been able to employ other workers.

"I went in with the goal and mind-set to start my own business," Drake said. "They went outside (the curriculum) and taught me about bidding and budgeting. CTE led me to all these opportunities."

CTE is a program within Employment Solutions Inc., formerly known as Metro Industries, which is an umbrella for five non-profit groups: Fresh Approach, which employs the intellectually disabled; Q-Box, a corrugated box company; Expressive Programs, a training and enrichment service for the intellectually disabled; Bluegrass Career Services, a job placement service; and CTE.

Like all the programs under Employment Solutions, CTE is focused on knocking down barriers to employment.

"Our mission is to help those with barriers to overcome them and become self-sufficient," said Brenda Evans, campus director.

Those barriers could be economic, being a single parent with multiple children, time restraints on learning a skill, or a criminal background. "We teach these folks a career and get them hired," Evans said.

The school offers certificates in cosmetology, nail technology, medical assistant, early childhood education, business office administration, food and hospitality professional, and building trades.

There are 115 students at the campus at 1165 Centre Parkway, and 40 more at the campus in Winchester which is solely cosmetology. The average age is 33.

Most are nine-month programs with tuitions and fees ranging between $6,000 and $16,000, which seems pretty steep.

But Evans said all the tools needed for each profession are provided as well as the fees for any exams necessary for certification. And, when warranted, externships are set up.

"At no time will a student leave this program and still need something in order to work," she said.

Instead of Monday-Wednesday or Tuesday-Thursday college classes, CTE runs on a modular system four days a week for 61/2 hours a day. The students in each program take the same class for the first three or six weeks before moving on to the next topic.

New classes start every three to six weeks, depending on the program. Students don't have to wait until September, she said.

While similar programs at the community college system may be less expensive, those programs run longer, Evans said, "which is something our students don't have: the precious element of time."

The first weeks are all about the program, followed by job readiness instruction that features mock interviews and even surprise phone interviews.

"There is no fluff," she said. "It is career-focused. Food and hospitality math is directly related to recipe conversion. There is no history except the history of food. No electives. No social studies. It comes down to the desires of the students."

Because it is accredited, federal financial-aid programs are available. All the instructors have worked in the fields they teach.

"We have a student to teacher ratio that is less than 8 to 1," Evans said. "We are not afraid of teaching a class with three students in it. We are afraid of teaching a class with more than 25."

Sixty percent of the students who start a program must complete it, according to their own standards, she said. And after graduation, 70 percent of the graduates must find work in their field.

"We haven't missed a benchmark," said Employment Solutions CEO Rick Christman. "We are not perfect. We still have our problems. We have lots of room for improvement."

Each student is matched with a "survival job," part-time work that helps put money in his or her pocket while in school. Those jobs are usually set up through Bluegrass Career Services.

When students enroll, there is a two-week period in which the school can cancel their enrollment or the student can pull out, no questions asked.

"If they are tardy twice in two weeks, we will cancel them," Evans said.

"Like they were never here," Christman added.

"One no-call, no-show, we cancel them in the first two weeks," Evans said. "We don't want to take their financial aid if we can't place them."

And if they don't show up for class, they probably won't show up for work. That is not acceptable.

"In our programs for nine months there is a lot of content," Christman said. "This is not play school. They have to work hard."

"We want them (students) to come in here whether or not they have a barrier and walk out with an education in a good career field, doing what they want to do and being able to support their families. That's our goal."

It has worked for Arlando Morris, 38, who graduated Building Trades in January. He and partner Ronald James, who graduated last year, own Jify Renovations. "Jify" stands for Jesus Is for You.

Morris said the company has secured nearly $100,000 in contracts since it started in November.

"We had great instructors behind us 100 percent," he said. "They give us job leads and believe in us and stay connected with us.

"I plan to do a great job so (good work) will continue to come back and everyone looks good."

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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