Not too long ago, those who dropped out of high school could get into training programs, learn a trade and make a good life for themselves.
Dropouts could become welders and certified nursing assistants, making good wages, with just a state certificate.
The state still does not require a high school diploma or GED to take exams for many vocational certificates.
But the classes needed to pass those exams are becoming so difficult that many students really need to have a high school education first.
At Schenectady County Community College, students who haven’t completed high school are now directed to the classes for home health aides and personal care assistants.
“In four weeks they can get the two certificates and immediate employment,” said Tiziana Rota, who runs the nurse training program at the college.
The jobs start at around $9.50 to $10 an hour, she added.
Then they hit a hurdle: Home health aides and personal care assistants generally have to travel from client to client. Most routes need a car.
“Some of the students have access to vehicles,” Rota said. “Sometimes employers work with them and try to assign them clients on the bus route.”
Employers are also becoming more motivated to address transportation issues, she added.
“They have more customers than they have home health aides and personal care assistants,” she said.
But the better job — both in terms of money and career path — is the certified nursing assistant.
CNAs can get full-time work in one location, often a long-term care facility, rather than trying to organize transportation to multiple places every day. They also get paid more — $12 to $15 an hour on average — and can begin a career in nursing that could continue with a license as a practical nurse, then a registered nurse.
The problem is that almost no one in the area will hire a certified nursing assistant who does not have a diploma of some kind, Rota said.
So the college put together a special program for nursing students who did not yet have a GED, a course that combines the practical skills for nursing with the math and reading they need to pass the GED exam.
It didn’t work, even when they stretched the eight-week course to 12 weeks.
“Twelve weeks was insufficient to prepare students for the GED,” Rota said. And the students struggled to master the nursing material as well.
“They cannot read at a fourth-grade level. The textbook is at a ninth-grade level,” she said, adding that with dropouts, she is dealing with “virtual illiteracy.”
That means students who want to move from personal care assistant to certified nursing assistant must study for months, or years, to get their equivalency diploma.
It is not a popular choice, and for those who try, it’s not easy.
Martika Brooks tried to become a certified nursing assistant by simply taking the GED exam. She failed, by 170 points.
She tried again. She failed. She could pass almost every section, but the math portion seemed hopeless. She spent two years working at it.
“It was scary,” she said.
Then she took a retail job at the Christmas Tree Shops, where she was promoted to supervisor. Others there painstakingly taught her how to calculate percentages and fractions on a calculator, which she had never understood before.
“I had to do a lot of numbers when I became a supervisor,” she said. “They really trained me.”
In November, she took the exam again, just before the GED was retired to make way for the new equivalency exam.
“I passed with flying colors,” she said. “I’m just proud to say I did it.”
Next month, she’s finally taking her CNA exam. Then she plans to take a job as a nursing assistant and eventually go back to school to become an RN.
“That was my main goal, ever since I was little,” she said.
She is delighted to have finally made it.
“My main goal was to become what I’m about to become,” she said.
As she studied for those years, she said she began to wish she had just stayed in high school.
She dropped out of Albany High School in 2008 at the beginning of 12th grade.
“You know, being young. I wanted to be ‘free,’ ” she said.
She came to Schenectady and got a series of jobs. But she wasn’t happy.
“I know all jobs are great, but it’s not great if you don’t like it,” she said.
For her, the path to a better life meant getting the education she had decided to leave behind. Others are also being forced to make that choice.
At Modern Welding School in Schenectady, students can no longer enroll until they finish high school or get an equivalency diploma.
Jeff Daubert, vice president at the school, said it came down to skills. Welders don’t have to have a diploma to take the certification test, but they need the skills they would learn in high school.
For example, they must read blueprints and pages of detailed specifications.
“It’s not Shakespeare, but if you can’t read the specs, how can you be sure you’re following the specs?” Daubert said.
Last year, he stopped accepting students who hadn’t finished high school or gotten an equivalency diploma.
The decision was determined partly by outside forces: In July 2012, federal aid was cut off for students without a high school or equivalency diploma. Then the welding school’s accreditation commission said that if the school wanted to keep accepting such students, it would need to give them extra help: counseling on life skills, money management, child care and other issues.
“Just things that are unrealistic to expect of a welding school,” Daubert said.
And the school wasn’t getting many high school dropouts. Since 2012, the school had only one student, out of hundreds, who didn’t have a high school or equivalency diploma. And that student had struggled mightily.
“He passed. He did get employment,” Daubert said. “It certainly would not be impossible for someone to become a welder without a high school diploma.”
But he worried about the man’s employment options.
“A great deal of the employers we’re in contact with really prefer a diploma,” he said.