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 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 Mr. Gavin 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 also have been leaders in midcareer training for people overcoming layoffs.
Some of the schools are part of national training institutions, while others are mom-and-pop outfits run by one person.
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.
I don't want to go overboard praising for-profit training programs; clearly, there are some real stinkers out there. But there are stinky programs in the nonprofit schools as well, and they're not always much cheaper.
When it comes to training for the purpose of finding work — which, by the way, I do not assume to be the point of four-year liberal arts programs — why not take the training that returns you to the market the most quickly? Once you're employed, you can (and should) build more skills, but with a paycheck in hand.
Whether you choose a for-profit or nonprofit 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, 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. In many cases, the training and work could be considered either an entry point to a field, or a fallback to soften the blow for someone laid off from a different career path.
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.
Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul, Minn. She can be reached at email@example.com or at 626 Armstrong Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102.