Rebekah Sanderson was a stay-at-home mom with a bachelor's degree in mass communications, but she couldn't find a job to help support her family. So after weighing all of her options, the military wife decided to become a registered nurse through a program at Columbus Technical College.
The starting wage in Columbus for someone graduating with a nursing degree is $22 an hour, or $45,760 annually, according to the Georgia Department of Labor's 2013 wage survey, and the average wage is $28.69 an hour, or $59,675 a year. That's more than the average annual salary for financial analysts with four-year degrees ($55,723) or chiropractors with doctoral degrees ($56,409).
Other hot technical careers include welding, with an average wage in Columbus of $16.58 an hour; heating and air conditioning, at $16.46 an hour; and plumbing, at $18.55.
Sanderson represents a trend of people opting to enroll in a two-year college, rather than going into debt at a four-year university for a degree that may be less profitable than an associate degree, or even a diploma or certificate in certain fields. Many are finding that they can earn just as much, or even more, than people with four-year degrees in a local economy that's shifting to more technical, manufacturing and transportation jobs.
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Two years vs. four
With nurses in high demand, Sanderson can expect her wages to rise rapidly.
Nationally, the average salary for a registered nurse is $67,930 a year, according to U.S. News and World Report.
And with an associate degree, she'll receive similar wages to a nurse with a four-year degree, said Lorette Hoover, president of Columbus Technical College.
"A lot of people don't understand that a two-year RN is the same as a four-year RN. An RN is an RN. There's only one license for the nursing field," Hoover said.
"You go to a four-year RN program because one day you hope to become a charge nurse or a nurse educator or you want to continue education one day. If you want to go back and teach, you'll have to have a master's degree."
In Columbus, top earners are still white-collar professionals, most with four-year degrees or higher, according to the state figures.
The average salary for a chief executive with more than five years of work experience is $143,208, according to the survey.
The average salary for lawyers in Columbus is $129,958; for education administrators in the elementary and secondary schools, $86,551; and for architectural and engineering managers, about $108,950.
The average salary for a kindergarten teacher is $55,586 a year, while the average for surgeons is $258,502, and dentists, $238,493.
Calls to Columbus State University about their four-year degree programs were not returned.
While most local workers will make nothing close to that amount, there's still plenty of jobs available for people to make a decent living, according to officials in the labor department, educators and industry insiders.
"One of the things that we're seeing in today's economy is that a lot of the jobs that are available and that have among the better opportunities for employment and longevity don't necessarily require a four-year degree," said Sam Hall, director of communications for the Georgia Labor Department.
"We look at Georgia's technical college system as one of the best in the country and through many of the programs they can prepare a person to get a job with an employer and make a good living, and have a good opportunity to stay employed for the long term."
Hall said that in addition to welding, heating and air conditioning, and plumbing, there are also a lot of jobs in the health and transportation industries.
The transportation sector is booming because of the Port of Savannah and Atlanta's position as a transportation hub for the Southeast.
Hall said HOPE grants, different than HOPE scholarships available at four-year colleges, are available to state residents taking and passing a course that provides them with a certificate or a degree through a technical college.
"I in no way mean to downplay the value of a four-year degree, and there are still a lot of jobs that require that," he said.
"But also in today's economy and job market the regular four-year degree does not carry as much weight as it used to and in many cases you really need to go ahead and get a master's degree in many of those occupations."
He said a four-year degree gives a person a rounded education, which is very important.
"But as far as being able to get a skill, go out, get a job with a good employer and make a good living to support yourself and your family, we're seeing that the technical college programs are really filling that need."
At Columbus Tech, Hoover said students can get a HOPE grant and pay about $1,200 for a two-year nursing degree, and without the grant the cost is only about $5,000.
Many people are taking advantage of the opportunity, but there are not enough students to meet the demand.
"I think it's pretty obvious that health careers are just going off the charts," Hoover said.
"I wish we had a building three times this size so we could expand our RN program, and dental hygiene program, and radiology program, and stenography program, and respiratory tech programs. All of those careers, two-year degrees, pay easily in the mid-40s and up."
Choosing the right path
On Thursday, a group of about eight nursing students returned to the Columbus Tech campus after doing clinicals.
Several said they already had bachelor's and master's degrees in various fields, but they decided to pursue nursing so they could make a better living.
Sanderson said she considered going to a four-year college to become a registered nurse, but she was drawn to the low cost and efficiency of the Columbus Tech program.
"I have family depending on me to survive," she said.
"And the fact that the cost is not as much as it is at a four-year college and the program is highly respected in the community were extremely important to me.
"I do intend to get my (bachelor's degree in nursing) after," she added. "But for now this will get me working immediately."
At the school's Advance Manufacturing Center, students were also excited about a new Engineering Technology program that started in January.
Montreo Jones, 20, said he transferred from Point University, a four-year, Christian liberal arts college in West Point, where he was taking general study classes at a cost of about $23,000 a year. But he received a scholarship and Pell Grant and only had to pay about $3,000.
"I just felt I was wasting my time," he said of his four-year college experience.
Now, Jones is on HOPE and Pell grants and pays nothing.
He plans to get the two-year engineering technology degree, then enter a co-op program to gain experience while working toward a bachelor's degree at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga.
Rick St. John, program director for Engineering Technology, said the four students currently in the program are working toward mechanical and electrical engineering degrees.
He said it's an applied program that teaches students skills that are in high demand.
He expects the number of students in the program to double or triple by summer.
On Thursday, John Starr, the Southeast regional accounts manager for Aerotek staffing company, visited the classroom and told the students what they could expect upon graduation.
He said there was a recent situation in Greenville, S.C., where 70 people in a similar program were hired, starting at $15.50 an hour.
And once they complete a six-month probationary period, they could make $16 or $18 an hour.
He said welding is another skill that employers are looking for, and without overtime, graduates could easily earn over $40,000 a year right out of school.
"My personal belief is that you're going to get more out of a two-year degree like this because you're going to walk into the workforce with a skill," he said. "There are lots of jobs out there."