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Adults enhancing transferable skills

A new school year is under way, but children aren’t the only ones hitting the books this fall.

Countless career-minded adults throughout Southern Nevada are also heading back into classrooms, having enrolled in continuing education courses in hopes of bolstering their occupational knowledge by learning the latest tricks of their respective trades.

Such courses can earn workers professional certificates and advanced certifications and designations pertinent to their career field, which can prove helpful when it comes to maintaining a current job, securing future employment and promotions, and boosting the bottom line of future wage increases.

Continuing education courses are typically taught at area trade and technical schools and universities, many of which also offer classes during evening hours, online or a blend of both.

According to a description featured in the Fall 2011 Professional Development course catalog at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, certificate programs are "comprehensive, career oriented courses of study not leading to academic degrees." Upon completion, certificates awarded "denote a permanent record of education achievement documented by universally recognized Continuing Education Units (CEUs)."

Certification and designation programs serve a different purpose. A recent article in T + D magazine, published by the American Society of Training and Development association for workplace learning and training professionals, reported that "Certification program assessments … are designed to verify that an individual possesses the level of knowledge, skill or ability necessary for competent performance of a specific professional role" and are "often considerably broader than that of a certificate program assessment."

Proactively obtaining professional certificates or certifications makes great sense to Dr. Robert T. Henry, director of the department of adult education for the Clark County School District, especially since these days companies may be less willing or able to dedicate funds for specialized employee training.

"There isn’t much in terms of employer development of the market, so to speak, because so many people are applying (for positions) whereas a number of years ago, employers would select the best (candidate) knowing they’re going to have to train somebody to fit into that job opening," Henry explains.

"Now, employers are (saying), ‘OK, this person has the training that we need, therefore we won’t have to spend any money to do additional training.’ They’re basically job-ready, which is different than it has been in years past."

Linda Montgomery is president of The Learning Center in Las Vegas, where corporate and career certifications are available for those working in the information technology (also called IT) field. She says, "In many cases, hiring decisions are made based on the certifications that a person does have."

While prior work experience is still "a must" for applicants, she says, having "the current certification is a must as well," especially given the nation’s tumultuous job market. "An individual who does not have the certifications would be at a disadvantage for (getting) a job as opposed to someone with both."

The Learning Center offers a host of CompTIA and Microsoft Office certifications, which are considered industry standards. Montgomery says there is growing interest in the school’s Green IT programs, which teach workers how to help companies consume and conserve electronic energy more efficiently. "Employers are looking for people that are certified these areas. It’s an exciting field."

As are the gaming and beverage industries, according to Ricky Richard, a co-owner and vice president of operations at Crescent School of Gaming and Bartending in Las Vegas. Even in a down economy, "A lot of people see this as something they can learn very quickly."

Because courses at the school can be completed in as little as six weeks, "It doesn’t take forever (before) you can see a light at the end of the tunnel, and in a place like Las Vegas, there’s a lot of opportunity in those fields," he says.

As anyone who works in gaming can attest, "The more games that you know, the more valuable you’ll be to a casino," Richard says. "You can move up in the industry with knowledge of multiple games and become a supervisor and so on. If you know just a single game, you’re sort of an island and there’s not much (job) security in that."

Same goes for bartending. Crescent School not only teaches students how to mix more than 200 types of drinks, but also offers a beverage management course that covers inventory and cost-control techniques and marketing tactics, among others.

"Those are skills that are going to help somebody climb the ladder and become a head bartender, a beverage manager, make them a little bit more valuable. Or, if they ever plan on opening up their own establishment, it really gives them some skills to help them turn a profit and avoid pitfalls," Richard says.

Career certifications can serve as a sort of "benchmark" for employers to know how thoroughly trained an employee is, explains Laurie Clemens, school director for the Las Vegas Professional Institute of Technology and Accounting Software (called LV-PITA). "It seems like with the (down) economy, there are a lot more people looking to upgrade those skills."

Besides CompTIA and Microsoft, LV-PITA also offers certification in Cisco software, and a "specialist course" in Adobe, used by graphic designers. The school also has programs for those looking to specialize in accounting and bookkeeping.

Clemens says specialist courses in QuickBooks software are "really a hot item right now, because every company needs to pay their bills and collect money and have somebody who handles all of that."

The computer industry isn’t alone in its need for skilled workers to keep abreast of the latest technologies.

Dan Rose, training director at Sheet Metal Workers’ Union Local 88 in Las Vegas, says the union offers its approximately local 1,500 journeymen (and women) members opportunities to educate themselves about cutting-edge advances in such areas as the fabrication and servicing of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, kitchen equipment, welding and metal work, among others.

Following the completion of a five-year apprenticeship program, union members may "come back in and update their skills and certifications" throughout their careers, he explains.

Among those filling training classes at Local 88, Rose says, are journeymen who likely "didn’t get that part (of the training) when they went through the apprenticeship program. Maybe they’ve done it, but it’s been a number of years since they’ve done the hands-on part of it and they’ve come back" to brush up on their skills.

Although journeymen aren’t contractually required by the union to continue their education, "In order for a member to continue to be employable, it is required," Rose says, because technology changes "so rapidly."

Case in point: energy audits. This relatively new field needs technicians to test buildings for energy efficiency and make suggestions for insulation and system upgrades. Meanwhile, certified welders are also in high demand throughout the country to help construct power plants.

Truck drivers are faced with a similar situation. There is a growing need locally and nationally for drivers who are qualified to haul hazardous materials such as fuel.

According to Mellody Guajardo, an admissions representative with the Southwest Truck Driver Training school in North Las Vegas, that "endorsement" — as it’s called in the industry — can be "a little bit harder to get onto your license," as it requires drivers to pass an additional written test and background check, as well as be fingerprinted.

The extra effort may prove worth it: Guajardo says drivers with hazardous materials endorsements can expect to experience a "substantial" increase in pay, and adds, "It all depends on the company you work for."

In today’s business climate, even the folks tasked with doing the hiring (and, sometimes, the firing) need to keep their job skills sharp.

Since 1989, UNLV has offered a certificate program in human resource management through its Division of Educational Outreach. Upon completion of the basic and advanced-level courses, students are awarded certificates by UNLV’s Professional Development Center and the Southern Nevada Human Resource Association.

Also offered at the university are the nationally recognized Professional in Human Resources (PHR) and Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) certifications, which are awarded by the international Society for Human Resource Management.

The human resource certificate programs have been popular, according to Ann Tate, UNLV’s Continuing Education program coordinator emeritus. "We have tried to make (the program) current and relevant to the people who are in the industry," she says.

"The certificate program that we designed and developed over time has changed because as the (employment) laws change, we changed the classes," Tate explains. For example, when corporate downsizing became a hot-button issue, "We tried to deal with that in class — how do you fairly evaluate (employees) and so forth."

The human resource certificate courses do "seem to help" industry professionals, she says. "It’s a positive experience that they can point to as an attempt to improve and upgrade their skills and keep themselves current."

Tate adds, "I’m a believer in lifelong learning. I don’t know how you can continue to improve and grow in your career if you don’t try to learn more about it all the time."

UNLV’s current course catalog is chockfull of continuing education options for workers looking to earn certificates in the paralegal field, as well as in fashion design, personal fitness, protective services and public relations. Graduates of the Sommelier Diploma Program are deemed certified sommeliers upon completing the intensive, 24-class course.

"We try to extend UNLV’s resources to meet the education needs of all learners," says Dr. Margaret "Peg" Rees, vice provost for Educational Outreach. "We have folks that come back for continuing education units just to increase skills sets if they’re looking for new jobs (or) higher wages.

"Then we also have students who have chosen a field that they would like to get into sometime, and those folks can carve an entirely new (career) pathway."

No need to sell Elie Taylor on the benefits of career certifications. An insurance sales representative with Liberty Mutual in Las Vegas, he is in the process of obtaining his first professional designation, a Life Underwriting Training Council Fellow (LUTCF), via a series of self-study courses offered by The American College in Byrn Mawr, Pa.

"I’m trying to stay ahead of the curve and make sure that I’m still viable in my job," Taylor explains of his decision to obtain the designation. "I’m surprised more people don’t do them, because it really does sharpen your skills and makes you more promotable."

Taylor began studying last year, and says he intends to complete the last of five courses required to test for the designation by early 2012. Putting to work the knowledge he’s already gained, he credits his studies and testing for the recent spike in sales numbers and profits he claims to be experiencing on the job.

"I think I got more efficient," says Taylor, 33, noting that some of the more helpful lessons focused on prospecting for clients and managing clients’ needs. "If I were to take those last two classes, I know I would be more focused and I’d probably see another bump in pay, because you get really focused on your career and your skill set and exactly what you need to do well and often to be successful."

His own positive experience with the certification process has even changed the way he conducts business in his personal life. "As a consumer, I don’t think I’d trust anybody if they didn’t have anything more than just their basic (business) license" in a given field, he says.

For example, "When I go to get a car repaired, I always make sure they’re ASE certified (by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence) and look for master certifications because I know what the difference is and how much effort it takes to get to that point."

Taylor says he is already thinking about future insurance designations he’d like to pursue.

"There are higher (insurance) designations out there, and you hear how excited I am about what I’ve gained from this low-level designation,” says. "There’s definitely more to be had."

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