Shoreline Community College’s automotive shop is abuzz with activity late into the evening, as a handful of students and an instructor peer into various automobiles, learning the names of parts and how to replace them. The program is just one of many vocational and technical programs that community colleges offer, and an increasing number of Asian Pacific Islander Americans (APIAs) are signing up.

Zi Quan Hu and Terry Zhao are two Chinese American students in the General Service Technician program at SCC. They said that for them, learning an applicable skill is important in this unpredictable economy.

“We want to know how a car works to get a certification so that we can get a job for a better future,” said Hu, who graduated from Ingraham High School in 2009. He recently joined the three-quarter long GST program so that he can receive certification to work as a general service technician. He hopes to quickly find a job upon graduation.

“Our students are finding jobs to be an auto service technician,” said Susan Hoyne, dean of the math and science division at SCC. “It’s a good-paying job with a lot of room for advancement.”

But there’s a “catch-22” for community colleges. According to Hoyne, when the job market falters, people come to community colleges for retraining or career classes, making enrollment numbers increase. As soon as the economy picks up, enrollment numbers begin to decrease, said Hoyne.

“We believe that community colleges are part of the solution for the bad economy because they often train workers to get jobs, but the state is also cutting us,” she said.

According to Hu and Zhao’s instructor, Mark Hankins, there has been pressure to increase class sizes. The college also had to reduce faculty.

Hoyne anticipates more cutting of programs and a possible tuition increase, especially since the state recently passed a bill stating that colleges can charge different tuition rates for different programs, she said.

Despite these setbacks, the automotive program continues to flourish.

Students who qualify can receive the Opportunity Grant, which is sponsored by the state. It helps fund students in vocational and technical programs and is designed to help them enter the workforce as quickly as possible. Hu said the grant covers the cost of his tuition and tools for the GST program.

“The auto program is a very healthy program and we are looking at ways to bring money into the college, so that we can hopefully offset some of those budget cuts that we know are coming,” said Hoyne.

The relationship the automotive program has with the Puget Sound Auto Dealers Association, which uses the facility for training prospective auto workers, has helped offset the budget problems, she said.

In Hankin’s GST class of 13, there are three Asian Pacific Islanders and numerous other students from ethnic minority groups. For many communities of color including APIs, language barriers and lack of a high school diploma make vocational and technical programs a good fit.

For instance, Zhao dropped out of high school to work but later realized he wanted to pursue different ambitions.

“My friend asked me to join this program,” said Zhao, who is also working on getting his General Education Diploma.

Meanwhile, Hu hopes to move on to the two-year program. His goal is to work with a dealership that will fund his schooling because he will not be eligible for the Opportunity Grant while in the longer program.

Mark Mitsui, president of North Seattle Community College, said the average age of students there is 31, an indication that a large percentage of students are returning many years after high school. “The majority of students are coming back … for retraining,” he said.

Mitsui said NSCC had experienced an 11.5 percent budget reduction in the past year. As a result, some programs were eliminated and others were reduced in size, keeping the job market and the needs of the students in mind.

“Most of our API students are in the health-care field and we did not eliminate any health-care programs because demand is so high,” he said. NSCC reports that 15 percent of all students in professional and technical programs considered themselves Asian or Pacific Islander in 2010, an increase from 2007.

Mitsui also suggested that students who are considering enrolling in vocational and technical programs apply for financial aid early because certain forms of aid are offered on a first-come, first-served basis.

To get through these budget reductions, college administrators and students alike will have to remain alert and informed to present the best possible future for all and encourage those working to turn their lives around.

“I wanted to do something in my life and get some skills,” Zhao said.

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