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It's skills taught at school, not profit status, that should determine attendance


News Sentinel - August 24, 2012

Greg Gavin, owner of the Minnesota School of Piano Technology in St. Paul, sent me an email last month reminding me of an article I wrote about his program more than a decade ago. He trains piano tuners in 12-week sessions, either individually or in groups and wondered if I might want to write another piece about this career path.

Although another column on piano tuning isn't forthcoming, I must thank him for reminding me of the importance of short-term, highly focused skills training. It's an especially timely topic this summer, given the spotlight Congress has been shining on the less appealing practices of some for-profit schools.

If you're not looking at the issue critically, it's easy to assume that “for-profit” is synonymous with “really, really bad” when it comes to training. After all, aren't these the schools that accept unprepared students, strip them of their federal grants and then ignore them until they drop out? In some cases, yes.

But in my experience, for-profit schools hold another distinction. They are often the first to create niche programs and to offer them on schedules that ordinary people can access while working or raising families. They have also been leaders in mid-career training for people overcoming layoffs.

To me, a key feature of the for-profit training groups was that they were motivated by money, and would run a class as soon as they had enough people to make a profit – which could happen every two weeks in some cases. I could get my clients in and out of training and into the workplace while others were still waiting for the new semester to start in more traditional schools. And yes, sometimes that was worth extra money.

Whether you choose a for-profit or non-profit training program isn't nearly as important to me as the skills you learn and their marketability.

I no longer track individuals who offer one-topic training programs. But I still hold a list in my head of short-term training options that can lead to at least entry-level employment very quickly. They include: phlebotomy, certified nursing assistant, CDL (commercial driving license), school bus driving, welding, bartending, food safety, boiler operator, bike repair, small engine repair and appliance repair.

Of course, not all of them are offered in every community, and many of them will be offered in a not-so-quick format if they're bundled with an associate's degree. Even so, you can see the pattern: They're all based on just one specific skill or vocation.

And what about piano tuning? It's not on my list of quick training that leads to employment (the number of potential employers is too small), but it does fit another important category: Quick training that can lead to self-employment. So if you've got decent hearing and an interest in the mechanics of pianos, keep this one on your list. There are instructors all over the country, but here in St. Paul Mr. Gavin can have you in and out of the program in 12 weeks – and that's the kind of service that can matter when you need to restart your career.