HELENA — Ann Olson is a single parent, and when her daughter, Tierra, was born, the baby needed surgery.
Tierra, who turns 5 on Saturday, required a lot of medical attention, and Olson became the primary caretaker and had a severely limited income.
When it was time for Tierra to start preschool, Olson decided it was time for her to go back to school, too. She enrolled in Helena College to become a legal assistant, and one of the jobs she interviewed for last semester paid $30 an hour, a salary of $62,400. She ended up taking a $20-an-hour internship.
"That puts me obviously in a big economical boost," Olson said.
Last semester, she had already moved out of public housing, and she was working toward moving completely off public assistance. The program runs just one year, and Helena College offers one- and two-year degrees and certificates.
Programs like the one Olson enrolled in are becoming a more popular, and education and labor and industry officials are encouraging students to pursue them as Montana prepares for an anticipated worker shortage, and the cost of education continues to escalate.
“Parents in Montana by and large want their kids to go to a four-year institution,” said Jan Clinard, the Pathways coordinator at Helena College. “They think ‘Oh, that two-year is for someone else's kid, not mine’ because they think it’s lesser. But if you look at the job market, it's not. Two-year is a good choice."
The Helena College program expands on Montana Career Pathways, which informs students of in-demand career options, and outlines the necessary courses for different degree programs within the Montana University System. The pathways, listed online, also aim to lessen financial barriers by aligning dual enrollment course offerings, which high school students can take for free or at reduced cost.
Throughout the state, middle schools, high schools and post-secondary institutions are placing an increased emphasis on career and technical education, or CTE, designed to provide students with the skills they need to enter the workforce.
CTE programs focus primarily on jobs that don’t require four-year degrees. While they’re often seen as a college alternative, educators are increasingly viewing them as a pathway for students to transfer from associate degree programs to four-year institutions, or pursue higher levels of industry certifications.
Associate degree and post-secondary certificate earners can also recover their tuition costs within a year of graduation, according to a 2017 report by the Montana Department of Labor and Industry and the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.
At Helena College, Clinard helps students identify fields of interest among the college's more than 30 one- and two-year degree and certificate programs. She then works with students to create academic plans, or “pathways,” so they take the classes they need and avoid wasting time or money.
Clinard said a lot of high-paying, in-demand jobs only require one- or two-year degrees, but it’s hard to get students to take those programs.
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"They’re crying for people to work in the automotive industry but we have a hell of a time getting kids to come take that program," Clinard said. "It’s a very odd thing because when we look at our enrollment in certain programs, it doesn't match the job needs."
Barbara Wagner, the chief economist for the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, said the demand for jobs that don't require four-year degrees isn't necessarily higher. But, she said Montana's worker shortage has resulted in people moving up to higher-paying positions and leaving gaps for lower-paying jobs, although she noted there are many high-paying jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree.
A report by Labor and Industry and the Commissioner's Office found that bachelor’s and associate degree graduates who work in Montana have similar incomes, although bachelor’s degree earners made slightly more.
Although increased education levels are generally associated with higher wages, the amount depends on the program, according to the report. For example, Montana graduates who earned a bachelor’s degree in information technology earned more than those with an associate’s degree, but registered nursing graduates saw little difference in wages between an associate degree or bachelor’s degree.
In recent years, some leaders in the tech industry have touted the knowledge and critical thinking skills that come with students who have education in the liberal arts and humanities. The University of Montana as highlighted Emily Graslie, who parlayed a UM art degree into a job at The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and creative writing alum Michael Fitzgerald, who founded Submittable, a growing tech firm based in Missoula with a global clientele.
Despite those successes, and the fact that liberal arts programs are the most common among college enrollees, graduates in liberal arts had the lowest workforce outcomes compared to other bachelor’s degree programs.
Graduates from liberal arts programs reported the lowest median income — averaging $16,800 a year after graduation — which is also coupled with below-average retention rates in the Montana workforce, according to the report from Labor and Industry and the Commissioner's Office.
Olson, who had succeeded in earlier jobs in sales but hadn't found as much meaning as she wanted in them, accepted a paid internship with Montana Generational Justice, a nonprofit. She's earning $20 an hour providing legal help to under-served people, such as those living in rural areas, veterans and Native Americans.
Faculty at Helena College, staff at the nonprofit, and an organization called the Career Training Institute worked together to get her placed. She's paid through the institute, which supports workforce development, and she gains experience from Montana Generational Justice.
"I have this phenomenal training plan. I have a great supervisor who is teaching me how to do the documents," Olson said.
Her paid internship started earlier this summer and runs through the end of fall semester. To broaden her experience, she's also working one day a week for a lawyer who handles water law.
Olson, who earned a 4.0 last semester and landed on the dean's list, said she's learning to do work that paralegals and lawyers do, and she's confident she'll be employable at the end of her internship.
"I think I'm way ahead of the game," Olson said.
Reporter Keila Szpaller contributed to this story.