Change of direction
Gwinnett Tech seeing greater enrollment in tough economy

LAWRENCEVILLE - When Lisa Valentino was laid off from her job as a construction coordinator, she decided she needed a new career plan.

Valentino, a Suwanee resident, began studying early childhood education at Gwinnett Technical College. Now in her second quarter of the program, Valentino said she initially plans to find a job as a paraprofessional, although she has a goal of completing a bachelor's degree and becoming a special education teacher.

Valentino said she chose to attend Gwinnett Tech because it has a good reputation and it's close to home, but it was her layoff prompted by the slowdown in the construction industry that caused her to go back to school.

"Lots of people who are in my classes are people who have been laid off," Valentino said. "We lost our jobs ... but we can go to school and change it."

During the last five quarters, Gwinnett Tech has seen strong enrollment increases. The summer quarter enrollment of 3,511 students is a 19 percent increase from last year, school officials said.

"We're delighted that increasing numbers of students are turning to Gwinnett Tech for their education and career training," said David McCulloch, the college's vice president of recruitment and marketing. "The value of the higher education is unquestionable, and in these times of economic concerns, having the most up-to-date and in-demand training is even more crucial."

Some of the largest increases have been in the information technology, education and business programs, with computer programming seeing a 70 percent enrollment increase.

Sugar Hill resident Michael Gokey, who has worked in the IT industry for 14 years, is in his second quarter of computer programming classes. He said he's focusing on learning the Java programming language.

Gokey, who has worked as a Web systems administrator and Web applications designer, said he was laid off as companies turned to outsourcing jobs. He said he has experience in JavaScript, but because many employers have expressed an interest in his knowledge of Java, he decided he actually needed to learn the programming language.

Gokey said he thinks the economy plays a big part in students' decisions to return to school.

"A lot of it is the economy," he said. "You've got to get some skills and do better than the person next to you."

McCulloch said he expects the school to continue to see more students register for classes. He attributes the increase in part to the college's aggressive recruitment efforts but said the job market and economic climate also play a part.

With a new Life Sciences Building on the way, McCulloch said Gwinnett Tech's health sciences programs will grow, as the college will be able to add and expand programs to train professionals for the fast-growing industry.

"We're very excited about the growth we've experienced in terms of enrollment," McCulloch said. "We look forward to continuing to be a provider of career-focused, job-training education."