If you think you need a bachelor's degree to enter a fast-growing career field, think again.
A Georgia-based program is making diplomas and certificates more accessible for students seeking careers in industries ranging from film production to welding. Through the Strategic Industries Workforce Development Grant (SIWDG), students receive free tuition to pursue a certificate or diploma in 11 high-demand industries, where there are more jobs than workers in Georgia.
The student must meet the eligibility requirements for the HOPE Grant, awarded exclusively to Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG) students, in order to receive the additional SIWDG funds that enable a free tuition bill.
But attending a technical college and qualifying for both can help reduce the massive amount of debt that can accumulate during college. Nationally, nearly 70 percent of college students graduate with an average $35,000 in student loan debt, according to financial-aid expert Mark Kantrowitz in a Time Magazine article examining the student loan crisis.
Job prospects also are improving as colleges partner with businesses seeking skilled workers. TCSG students earned almost 52,000 degrees, diplomas and/or certificates in 2015 from the state's 22 technical colleges. Today, 98 percent are either employed or continuing their education.
"A lot of people think technical colleges are for older adults," said Lauren Giddens, a 21-year-old nursing student at Southern Regional Technical College in Thomasville. "It's for anyone who wants a successful career."
As you make plans for college or a new career path, here are 11 high-demand jobs that only require two years or less of college, in which you may qualify for free tuition.
1. Movie Production & Set Design
Description: Georgia's film industry is growing so much that it's been called Y'allywood. In certificate and diploma programs, students receive training in areas such as electrical and lighting, on-set production assistance, and hair/makeup. Labs and simulations are provided to gain real-world experience in pre- and post-production and crew responsibilities.
Colleges with programs: Eleven, including Southern Crescent Technical College, Savannah Technical College, and Georgia Piedmont Technical College. In 2016, the Georgia Film Academy debuted a pilot certification program at state colleges including Gwinnett Technical College.
"On-set film workers are needed, but even entry-level jobs require a very specific set of skills," Jeffrey Stepakoff, the Academy's executive director said in a press release. "The Georgia Film Academy certification puts students on the fast track to gainful employment."
2. Commercial Truck Driving
Description: Students learn how to operate a commercial motor vehicle of various sizes on different road types. The programs provide basic training in the principles and skill of trucking.
Colleges with programs: Nearly 20, including Bainbridge State College, which has a technical division, and Southeastern Technical College. In the one-semester certificate program at Oconee Fall Line Technical College, students learn regulations, best practices and legal elements of driving, then receive hands-on training.
"We provide a steady stream of individuals with entry-level skills who have a steady job by the time they finish school," said Dr. Lloyd Horadan, president of Oconee Fall Line Technical College.
The program seeks to train a young generation of drivers to fill jobs vacated by drivers who are retiring or unable to work long hours. After the 10-week program, graduates can move into jobs with the potential to earn an entry-level salary of $30,000-$45,000.
"The grant is the greatest advancement we've seen in funding, and it's made the greatest difference," he said.
3. Computer Technology
Description: Students gain instruction in web development, application programming, database techniques and other computer operation concepts. Graduates are hired for jobs such as computer support specialist or information technology professional.
Colleges with programs: More than 20, including Atlanta Technical College and Lanier Technical College. The Computer Information Technology program at Central Georgia Technical College (CGTC) offers classes ranging from computer programming to web design. CGTC officials have seen about a 10 percent growth in program enrollment since SIWDG began.
Partnerships between technical colleges and businesses improve the chances of graduates finding jobs.
"What really sets us apart from other college programs is the hands-on experience the students get," said Dr. Ivan Allen, president of CGTC.
4. Practical nursing
Description: Students gain expertise through courses and clinical experience to earn a diploma in Practical Nursing. Courses provide the technical knowledge about anatomy, pediatric care and other topics, and address the values of responsibility and professional ethics.
Colleges with programs: More than 20, including Georgia Piedmont Technical College and Southern Crescent Technical College. Southern Regional Technical College (SRTC) offers a diploma in Practical Nursing that teaches concepts such as maintaining a sterile procedure, hanging IVs and properly responding to patients.
SRTC's Lauren Giddens said she feels as if she has more experience than other new nurses because of the hands-on training and support from her instructors.
"The teachers are personable, and I believe when you have a teacher that cares about you, your success goes further," said Giddens, the college's 2016 Student of the Year.
5. Certified Engineer Technician
Description: Students can earn a diploma or certificate in fields from computer engineering to traffic signal engineering. Training involves learning core engineering techniques such as drafting and design in AutoCAD and complex calculations.
Colleges with programs: Eight, including Atlanta Technical College, Chattahoochee Technical College and Wiregrass Georgia Technical College.
6. Precision Manufacturing
Description: Students can participate in diploma and certificate programs with classroom instruction and training in industrial settings. Students learn processes such as manufacturing design, assembly, engineering tools and concepts, and drafting techniques. With experience programming and operating advanced equipment, graduates can fill entry-level positions such as manufacturing maintenance technology, a field much in demand.
“Today, advanced manufacturers like Kia are increasingly seeking workers with multiple skills sets – people who use critical thinking and who are adept at problem-solving,” says Randy Jackson, chief administrative officer for Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia. “Manufacturing equipment is very sophisticated, so those who are generalists in this field and can strategically apply their knowledge are highly valued.”
Colleges with programs: 10, including West Georgia Technical College and Augusta Technical College.
7. Welding and Joining Technology
Description: Welders in Georgia are in high demand, and many programs are offered in partnership with local companies. Students can earn a diploma, or opt for specific certificates ranging from Pipe Welding at North Georgia Technical College to Welding Blueprint Reading at South Georgia Technical College.
Colleges that offer the program: More than 20, including Coastal Pines Technical College and Chattahoochee Technical College.
When Cooper Goldbeck was 16, he took his first welding class. He participated in Move on When Ready, a dual-enrollment program offered at East Coweta High School in Sharpsburg through West Georgia Technical College. He earned the Basic Shielded Metal Arc Welder Certificate. By the time he graduated high school, he had a full-time welding job at Grenzebach Corp., where he apprenticed.
The courses at West Georgia Technical College introduced skills, such as reading mechanical drawings, for him to succeed as a young welder. With the average age of welders being 55, he sees the demand for new welders.
"Many of those people are ready to retire and there are an abundance of jobs that need to be filled," he says.
8. Early Childhood Care and Education
Description: Students with a passion for teaching Georgia’s youngest residents can earn a diploma or certificate by learning skills such as childhood care and education theory. Graduates are qualified to work in settings including child care centers and Georgia Head Start, which supports children in low-income families.
Colleges that offer the program: More than 20, including Ogeechee Technical College, Oconee Fall Line Technical College and Georgia Northwestern Technical College.
9. Health Sciences
Description: Health Sciences students learn to work in areas from dental assisting to sports and fitness management. Students can earn diplomas and certificates in fields such as pharmacy assistance, medical coding or health information technology.
Colleges that offer the program: More than 20, including Wiregrass Georgia Technical College and Southeastern Technical College.
Mary Rhodes, a mother of two who is married to a member of the U.S. Special Forces, was inspired to seek a career in healthcare because of a family illness. The SIWDG funds helped her pay for books, tuition and supplies, relieving her of the financial burden. She will graduate from the Practical Nursing program at Columbus Technical College in 2016 and bridge into its Associate Degree Nursing Program.
10. Diesel Equipment Technology
Description: Students learn skills such as emergency power generator repair theory and how to handle heavy equipment and marine systems. Diploma and certificate programs help graduates land entry-level jobs as technicians in truck and equipment shops and dealers as well as in the agricultural field.
Colleges that offer the program: More than a dozen, including Albany Technical College and South Georgia Technical College. Additionally, businesses such as Caterpillar and its equipment dealers have partnered with Athens Technical College, whose graduates have landed jobs.
11. Industrial Maintenance Technology
Description: Newly added to the SIWDG program during the 2016 legislative session, this field encompasses almost 150 disciplines, many in the field of manufacturing. Students trained in industrial maintenance will ensure production and quality when operating machinery and mechanical equipment, and courses include locomotive electrical systems, robotics technician and telecommunications and security technology.
Colleges that offer the program: Participating colleges will be announced in the summer of 2016. Updates will be listed here.
Through the Strategic Industries Workforce Development Grant, students can avoid falling into college loan debt and instead, receive training and hands-on experience to land well-paying careers in the entertainment, logistics, technology, education, health care, manufacturing and other industries.
This article is presented in collaboration with Technical College System of Georgia. Visit the website for more information.