Construction student Deandre Chatman smooths over concrete during a lesson at the Fresno City College Career & Technology Center. Construction and other trades have become increasingly appealing as college costs go up. Photo by Donald A. Promnitz
Cristian Sanroman of Fresno had put some thought into a bachelor’s degree to become a surveyor, but instead, he turned to welding.
For him, there’s something about being in the shop, under the helmet and behind the torch that feels good to him. And since he’s taken up welding, the 22-year-old Fresno City College student has been making steady moves towards a welding career. He’s almost done with his classes and he’s already getting work offers, though he plans to take structural welding to further advance his skills.
“It’s less time, but I don’t need to spend four years in college to start working here,” Sanroman said of an internship he’s been offered. “This semester is my last semester and I already have an internship. I already have jobs lining up. Feels good.”
However, Sanroman and his classmates aren’t the only students taking up a trade in the Valley. In fact, as the value of the four-year degree continues to decline with inflation and debt accumulation, students are finding that learning welding, construction, coding and other skills can be a faster, less costly way to earn a lucrative career.
According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, student loan debt in the country currently adds up to $1.56 trillion among 44.7 million Americans. Nearly 12 percent of these loans are at least 90 days delinquent or in default. In 2017, the average amount of debt at graduation stood at $28,500. Public opinion also seems to suggest that it may not be worth the cost. In a late 2017 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, approximately 47 percent of Americans surveyed do not believe that a four-year degree will lead to lucrative work. Another 49 percent do believe having a degree pays off, but this gap is 13 percent narrower compared to a 2013 survey.
A possible escape from the four-year college system has been emerging as Fresno’s tech scene continues to grow. In places like Geekwise Academy, for example, an increasing number of people in the Valley have taken to coding. Students in these classes have even been able to strike out and create their own apps and make businesses around them. Fresno City College is also working to meet the growing popularity of tech work by starting cybersecurity classes.
In fact, coinciding with this decline in university degree confidence, the two-year system has grown in popularity, spurned further by a shortage of employees in the manufacturing workforce. Becky Barabé, dean of the Applied Technology department at Fresno City College, said there’s also been the emergence of a new type of working class that merges blue and white-collar elements. These jobs require hands-on technical skill, but also the ability to problem-solve and think critically.
“So it’s not necessarily just the high school graduate and it’s not necessarily the four-year graduate,” Barabé said. “It’s that middle person who probably doesn’t need four years of college to get those technical skills and knowledge, but more than high school. So ‘some college’ is becoming a critical category area for the nation.”
One area where these two classes of employee are meeting in the middle has been in computer-aided manufacturing (CAM). In the 20 years since he started working at Fresno City College, instructor Mark McCollough has taken the manufacturing program into the 21st Century — and he’s been taking his students with him. To be exact, he’s done away with all the conventional equipment and brought in all-modern software and computer technology. A key part of this work has been the use of computer numerical control (CNC) machines to manufacture tools and parts by means of a computer.
McCollough added that the program now offers students the opportunity to take on a whole, entrepreneurial aspect to CAM, letting them make their own businesses while they continue their education.
“Machines run from $30,000 to $500,000-plus,” McCollough said. “But with a $30,000 machine — rather than buying a car — you can put it in your house, buy the software and start your own production company, and do minor works for that.”
However, to further save money and help them while they study, the CAM program has now started teaching students how to build their own small CNC machines to begin making parts at a much cheaper cost.
One of McCollough’s most successful pupils has been Jorge Perez, who has taken up work at Monster City Studios in Fresno. As the head CNC operator, he designs and assembles the pieces for sets and other components that go into parks, films and television.
Prior to taking CAM, Perez was studying electrical engineering at Fresno State. However, he said that when one of his friends graduated, finding work was difficult, and even if he could find a job, it often paid close to the same amount Perez had been making while working in fast food.
“We’re all told college is the best — four-year university is the best thing to do for yourself — and I don’t necessarily think that’s the case,” Perez said. “I’ve had more success from community colleges and trades. I’ve made a lot of money welding and I’m making a good amount of money just manufacturing with CAM.”