For some graduates, less (school) is more (pay)

Study: Applied science students making more than bachelor counterparts

After four or more years of work, hundreds of Colorado Mesa University bachelor’s graduates will walk across the stage during commencement Saturday at Stocker Stadium and into jobs with a median first-year salary of $37,003 if they remain in-state, according to a new study from the Colorado Department of Higher Education and College Measures.

A smaller group of students at the same ceremony who spent on average two years earning associate of applied science degrees from Western Colorado Community College are expected to have a fatter wallet than their bachelor’s-holding counterparts after one year of work. Students from WCCC’s 16 associate of applied science programs earn a median salary of $45,891 in their first year of work post-graduation in Colorado, according to the new report.

The report lists a median first-year salary of $45,899 for AAS graduates statewide, compared to $38,860 for Colorado public school graduates who earn a bachelor’s degree and remain in-state to work. An associate of arts or science earned the average Colorado graduate $30,539 in their first year on the job — $29,320 if they went to Western Colorado Community College.

While an associate of science or arts is designed to prepare students for a four-year degree, students can move into a bachelor’s track or leave an AAS program and go straight into a career.

Like the other six 2013 graduates in WCCC’s process systems technology AAS program, 37-year-old Kris Scoggins is leaving school with a job. Chevron came to the school in March and recruited him to start as a field service operator June 17.

“The average pay is probably $50,000 a year, entry-level, and that’s not including benefits,” Scoggins said.

Cameron, a company that fabricates tanks for the oil and gas industry, recruited two graduates from WCCC last year and another four students this year. Cameron Territory Manager Lee Garza said he hires mostly AAS welding and process systems technology graduates, although a certificate sometimes works, too.

“We’re starting people at $45,000 a year. They could make up to $56,000, depending on experience,” he said.

Jason Sinclair, a welding instructor at WCCC, said AAS students can immediately earn $15 to $20 an hour or more in welding, plumbing or electrical work. He said wages are increasing locally as businesses realize some of the non-degree-holding welders they can hire for $10 an hour are costing them time and money if they break equipment.

“Not everybody can do it or we would be flooded with guys with their own trucks” working independently, Sinclair said.

Pay varies between the community college’s AAS programs, which range from culinary arts to construction technology. Office and business automation employees who may come from an AAS administrative office technology program, for example, have a median wage of $11.85 an hour in this region, according to the Mesa County Workforce Center, while an AAS emergency medical technician graduate has a median wage in this region of $20.62 an hour.

The Workforce Center anticipates growth or a steady job count over the next five years in many local occupations related to AAS programs. Growth predictions vary ahead or behind of national growth predictions depending on the sector.

Students may look in other states and regions for work, but Sinclair says they don’t always have to.

“The work is here if they want it,” he said.

John Sluder, a department head for numerous subjects at WCCC, said students can go pretty much anywhere in the nation with an AAS degree, but the programs are designed with input from local businesses “so students can hit the ground running” in the workforce.

“It translates into there are definitely jobs out there,” he said.

Students who moved out of state were not counted in the higher education study. The study measures only first-year earnings for students who graduated from Colorado’s public colleges and universities between 2006 and 2010 and stayed in Colorado for their first post-collegiate jobs. The report does not compare Colorado first-year pay to other states or vary pay data by the Colorado region where graduates take their first jobs.

Scoggins said he’s one of the few local process systems graduates who was able to nab a job in Grand Junction. He said many of the jobs Chevron was recruiting for when he was hired are in Texas and states that concentrate more on oil than natural gas. He said his job may move if the price of natural gas remains low.

According to a legislative report released Wednesday, there were 7,688 job openings in the western Colorado region in 2009 for the 270 students who graduated from “skilled trades” programs at WCCC. The same year, 6,024 jobs were open in the region for the 401 “general” program graduates from four-year liberal arts programs at Colorado Mesa.

There is good news in the legislative report for all degree-holders. The report predicts two-thirds of all Colorado jobs will require more than a high school diploma in five years. Four percent of jobs in the state two years ago required an associate’s degree and 7 percent required a certificate, but 17 percent required a bachelor’s and another 3 percent required a master’s or doctoral degree.

The Department of Higher Education and College Measures report notes some of the earnings information may be deflated because of bachelor’s students who remained in Colorado for graduate school and worked part-time their first year after undergraduate studies.


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