Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press Former truck driver Marty Aaron, 38, talks about his new career aspirations in nuclear power engineering at Chattanooga State Community College.
Technical and community college enrollment is reaching all-time highs in Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia as the stumbling economy forces people to seek training to find jobs.
Hixson resident David Phillips, 53, said he lost his job when the Chattanooga Group announced it was moving manufacturing operations of medical devices to Mexico in June 2009.
Phillips was an international service manager for the company. He said he liked the work, "but I didn't want to leave Chattanooga."
Building circuit boards in a class last week at Chattanooga State Community College, Phillips said he's retraining for a job that will let him stay here. He's building on his U.S. Navy experience in nuclear technologies and updating his knowledge in electronics.
He's also a classmate of his oldest child, Melinda Mundzak, who's a freshman this semester. Phillips said he's happy to be an example for his four children, ages 13 to 18.
Enrollment has increased at all Tennessee Board of Regents' institutions, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Paula Short said.
"We are seeing enrollment increases for both students right out of high school and returning adults," Short said. "High school graduates can't find jobs, and returning adults either cannot find employment or have lost jobs. Both are in college to retool or increase their marketability via new credentials."
Over the last two years, enrollment at the Technology Center at Chattanooga State swelled by 38.4 percent, compared with 9.5 percent at other centers in the state, records show.
"This fall, 20 students were enrolled in Technology Center programs at the Volkswagen site. More are expected this spring," she said.
Short predicts that Volks-wagen will have a "significant impact" on the Technology Center in Chattanooga.
Technical College System of Georgia spokesman Mike Light echoed Short's assessment of the realities facing both old and young workers.
"What we're seeing at colleges like Georgia Northwestern is the same effect that we saw earlier down in West Georgia when the Kia plant came to LaGrange," Light said. "You see a lot of people coming back to our colleges looking for training for skilled manufacturing."
Community and technical schools in both states also have had stable enrollment in health care training, Light and Short said.
"Forty percent of our enrollment statewide is in health care. Those businesses are still doing well, despite the economy," Light said.
Fall full-time enrollment at Chattanooga State is up 12 percent this year from last. And 2009 saw overall growth of 10 percent at the school, spokesman Jeff Olingy said. He credits job gains at Alstom Power and Volkswagen for the increase.
"Chattanooga has such a bright future -- even though the times are difficult right now -- that a lot of people are going back to college to prepare for that visibly bright future," he said.
A good chunk of those are "mature, nontraditional students," many with four-year degrees in unrelated fields, he said.
Tim McGhee, dean of engineering technology at the college, said enrollment in his division has increased by 300 percent since 2008.
The Volkswagen announcement in the summer of 2008 "got everybody excited about technology," he said. TVA and Chattanooga State also partnered to develop two programs for potential careers with TVA or in the nuclear power industry, he said.
Marty Aaron, 38, a former truck driver from Cleveland, Tenn., is at Chattanooga State training for a job as a nuclear power plant operator.
"I'm a happy guy these days," he said. "I finally figured out what I want to do when I grow up."
Georgia Northwestern Technical College President Craig McDaniel said the college had a 12.3 percent enrollment jump this fall compared with fall 2009. Among its four campuses, it counts 2,894 students in Walker County, 2,597 in Floyd County, 903 in Gordon County and 308 in Polk County.
McDaniel said three main factors are driving enrollment growth, the first being the 17,000 people who are out of work in Northwest Georgia. Also, he said, more new high school graduates are choosing technical college, and more people with college credit or four-year degrees are in search of "a marketable skill."
"They are turning to the technical college because of the relevance of the curriculum and the connection we have with employers," he said in an e-mail.
McDaniel said health care programs at his school have waiting lists and enrollment has grown in public service programs, too.
"Criminal justice, early childhood education, cosmetology and culinary arts are very strong on every campus where they are offered," he said. Business and industrial technology programs also have increased enrollment.
Dalton State College's enrollment is climbing steadily but not with the surge found at some schools, officials said.
Dalton State's average student age has dropped from 28 to 25, stemming from the college's addition of a baccalaureate program and residential facilities, Vice President for Enrollment and Student Services Jodi Johnson said in an e-mail.
The college has not only recruited new students, but kept more of those who might have transferred in the past, Johnson said. And most students now attend fulltime rather than parttime, she said.
The total head count at Dalton State grew 4.6 percent from 2009 to 2010 while numbers of full-time students increased by 6.9 percent, she said.
Cleveland State Community College's fall enrollment of 3,766 was up 4.1 percent from 2009 and the highest in the school's 43-year history, officials said.
Full-time enrollment also set a record for the second year in a row, with a 3.8 percent increase over last fall, figures show.
Officials say enrollment grew by more than 30 percent at Cleveland State's McMinn County campus.
"We're really not seeing a huge change in our age profile or our gender profile," Vice President of Academic Affairs Jerry Faulkner said. "It seems that the economy is striking all across the spectrum, across all demographics."
Incoming Cleveland-area industries such as Wacker Chemical and VW influence enrollment in specific areas, he said.
Cleveland State added an electromechanical degree concentration for people looking for a job with VW and started a two-year chemical-process program for those hoping to work at Wacker when it opens its factory in a few years, he said.
More enrollment growth could come as existing industries hire new workers to replace those who leave for jobs at the new companies, he said.
"I think there's going to be an opportunity for community colleges to help with backfill," he said.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...