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How to get a skill — and a decent-paying job — on the cheap

How to get a skill — and a decent-paying job — on the cheap


Many young people will be feeling lost this month. They’ve just graduated from high school. They think four years of college isn’t for them.

They like working with their hands, but they have no skills to sell.

The good news is that there are relatively inexpensive ways to pick up skills that lead to decent-paying jobs around St. Louis. Sometimes the training is free.

First a warning: Be wary of for-profit technical schools that advertise on television. Their cost is absurd, and you can often find the same program cheaper.

For instance: A 60-week course in auto mechanics will run $20,713 at for-profit Vatterott College in Arnold. Two years of auto technician training will run $6,180 at St. Louis Community College, or $8,160 at Lewis & Clark Community College in the Metro East. Books are extra.

“There is steady demand for people to work on cars and trucks,” said Kent Scheffel, vice president of enrollment services at Lewis & Clark.

Here are some other options:

Construction apprentice: Construction jobs will be “extremely plentiful” for the next five years, said Jeff Aboussie, who runs the St. Louis Building Trades and Construction Trades Council in St. Louis. The trades are getting hungry for apprentices, especially minority apprentices, he said.

Apprentices are paid. “It’s earn while you learn,” Aboussie said. When newbies reach journeyman level, the pay can run $28 to $30 an hour plus benefits in skills such as carpentry and heavy equipment operation. The work isn’t always steady, and unemployment hit 35 percent and higher during the housing bust early in this decade.

Construction unions run the apprenticeship programs. Some unions bring in apprentices on their own, while others require a “letter of intent” from a contractor willing to hire them.

Apprentices don’t escape book learning. Electricians need algebra and geometry. Sheet metal workers sometimes use trigonometry.

Refinery worker: Newly hired refinery workers can earn $75,000 a year with overtime, and paychecks like that are worth some study.

Lewis & Clark Community College has a two-year associate’s degree program in “process operations” to train people for the Phillips’ 66 refinery in Wood River. “We have a miniature refinery on our Edwardsville campus,” Scheffel said.

Many students land refinery jobs before they graduate, and finish the program part-time. “They are in demand right now,” Scheffel said.

Tuition for all two years runs about $8,200 for Metro East residents, plus books.

Medical fields: “Health care is hot,” said Steve Long, associate vice chancellor at St. Louis Community College. There is big demand for higher-skilled workers with two years of training.

Registered nurses average $29 an hour in St. Louis, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The job requires two years at community college, although those programs sometimes have waiting lists. Many nurses go on to get bachelor’s degrees.

It takes two years of study to be trained as a physical therapy assistant (average pay $23.64 an hour), radiology technician ($25.57 an hour) or a respiratory tech ($23.93 an hour). Figure about $7,000 in tuition for all two years, but financial aid and tax credits substantially reduce that cost for most people.

Licensed practical nursing ($20.33 an hour) is an 18-month course at St. Charles Community College. A 12-week course will make you a pharmacy technician averaging $14.60 an hour.

Those are pay averages for everyone in the field; new entrants may well start lower.

Learn computers: There is a future for would-be geeks without a four-year degree. Area industries can’t find enough computer programmers. So LaunchCode, a nonprofit supported by area businesses, offers free training in coding along with apprenticeships. (Check out About 40 percent of its students have no college degree. Programmers average $40.55 an hour.

Community colleges also offer training for computer jobs, ranging from two-year associate degrees to a six-month course to become a help-desk technician.

High school grads from north St. Louis County may land a scholarship at Ranken Technical College, a well-respected nonprofit trade school, thanks to a $1.75 million gift from Emerson after the Ferguson protests. A year at Ranken costs $14,000, but the typical student pays $6,000 after grants.

Some training is free. St. Louis Community College periodically offers a free 10-week training course for people who want to work as assembly machinists at Boeing, which often hires the graduates. Recorded information is available at 314-539-5921.

Also free at St. Louis Community College:

  • A nine-week course in avionics, preparing students to work on airplane electronics.
  • Truck-driver training.
  • A six-week course in logistics, which readies people for entry-level jobs in warehousing and distribution. Warehouse jobs average $15 an hour. (St. Charles Community College has a similar program.)
  • There is free training for would-be medical assistants, who take vital signs from patients among other functions in doctors offices. Pay averages $14.24 an hour.
  • Community Health Worker training is free, and the pay averages $19.19 an hour.
  • St. Charles Community College offers free welding training.

“We have a substantial waiting list for it. We have a lot of companies very interested in our graduates,” said Amanda Sizemore, the college’s dean of corporate and community development.

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