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Certificate programs: A shortcut to new careers

Christine Graf rolls out the sweet dough in

Christine Graf rolls out the sweet dough in the Baking Lab at the Suffolk County Community College Culinary Arts and Hospitality Center in Riverhead. Credit: Randee Daddona

After Christine Graf’s job as a graphic artist was outsourced last August, the Nesconset resident, at age 59, decided to make a 180-degree career correction and cook up a new occupation for herself.

With time to spare and a severance package to float her, Graf is getting a fresh start in a field far from desktop publishing by earning a certificate in baking and pastry arts from Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead.

“I’ve always enjoyed baking, I have an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie that everyone liked, and I’m also famous for my raspberry squares,” Graf says. She first learned her way around an oven in her mother’s kitchen in Copiague, and always shared pies, batches of brownies and other baked goodies with co-workers.

These days, Graf spends her Fridays teaming up with other future chefs to complete assignments for baking and pastry assistant professor Richard Amster. Going to pastry school isn’t all sweetness and light, though. On Wednesdays Graf spends classroom time learning about sanitation regulations and restaurant management. Tuition for the community college certificate program costs about $9,000.

Graf hopes to start earning some of that investment back when she rejoins the working world as a professional baker at a restaurant or craft fair. She’s even thinking of starting her own business at the Stony Brook University Business Incubator.

“It’s exciting, and it’s also a little bit scary to be out of your comfort zone,” Graf says.

Long Islanders who want to jump-start a new career, or improve chances for a promotion in their current job, are getting a boost from certificate programs in a variety of fields — not only in pastry arts but also interior decorating, document translation, business management and solar energy. If you’ve been tossed from your job through attrition or downsizing, held back by the lack of a degree, or want to leap into an entirely new field, certificate programs are generally less expensive, and take less time to complete, than a traditional associate’s or bachelor’s degree, education experts say.

If you decide to return to school, and you’re 50 or older, you’ll most likely fit right in. Jo Anne Durovich, chairwoman of the Human Services department at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue, says the overwhelming majority of students enrolled in the school’s certificate programs, such as gerontology and alcohol and addictions counseling, are mature adults starting second careers.

“They are my strongest students; they have the discipline of already having entire careers and raising families,” Durovich says.

The vast majority of certificate students go back to school either for a career change or advancement, says Shawn O’Riley, dean of University College, the Adelphi University program for working adults. “Occasionally it’s folks who are kind of looking for self improvement,” he adds.

A significant number, like Celine Rogan of East Hampton, are driven by concern that the lack of a college credential is holding them back at work. “The one thing that always gnawed away at me was not finishing my college education,” says Rogan, who is 54. After graduating in 1979 from Sacred Heart Academy in Hempstead, Rogan had completed two semesters of liberal arts studies at Nassau Community College in Garden City. But she dropped out to work full-time in the city before getting her degree. As operations manager for a Long Island transportation company, she’s surrounded by millennials with bachelor’s degrees. “I felt like I could have easily done the same thing that they did and improved my career chances,” she says.

With better-late-than-ever resolve, Rogan is taking a 32-credit certificate in business management from Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead. She’s two classes away from completing a certificate that she says will make her “a lot more hirable,” and halfway to the associate’s degree her heart’s set on.

Although credit certificate programs can be applied to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, many are taken for no academic credit. However, the goal remains the same: to learn the basic skills for a job — with no time spent on liberal arts courses.

That no-frills arrangement appeals to many older students. “I am always anxious to get going quickly in things, so I felt the certificate program would give me the skills needed to start my business,” says Judy Insinga, 67, of Bellmore. She’s planning to apply what she’s learned in a New York Institute of Technology interior design certificate program at a painted furniture store she’s starting up with her longtime friend and interior decorating classmate, Mary Canty, 52, of Baldwin.

Not interested in running your own business? Certificate programs can also add a marketable skill that puts post-retirement bucks in your pocket or purse.

“One day when I retire from education I want translation to be a source of income,” says Olga Castro, 54, of Manhasset, a second-grade bilingual teacher at Powells Lane School in Westbury. Translating English to Spanish and vice versa comes naturally to Castro, who immigrated to the United States from Caracas, Venezuela, at age 18. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in music and a master of science degree in education, both from Queens College in Flushing, with extra credit in bilingual studies. “I love both languages,” she says.

The idea to return to college yet again occurred to Castro after she volunteered to translate documents for her district. She earned a Translation Studies Certificate from Adelphi five years ago. She takes on work pro bono to build a resume for the day when she can charge for her translation services. The certificate has also made her a better bilingual teacher, she says.

Not every certificate program ends with a job placement.

Keith Carpenter, 55, of Brentwood, says he couldn’t find a job after he completed a pharmacy technician certificate program at a Long Island college. So he tried again at Suffolk Community. Advisors tested and interviewed Carpenter, and recommended that he choose a field closer to the associate’s degree in heat, ventilation and air conditioning he had earned from Farmingdale State College.

“When they saw my background in engineering, they wanted to know if I would take this course they had for solar energy,” Carpenter says.

Carpenter, who worked as a disaster relief agent for the Federal Emergency Management Agency after superstorm Sandy in 2012 and Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, recently completed an Energy Rater certificate.

The new credential qualifies him for a job as an energy auditor for residential and commercial solar power companies. The solar job would pay about $10,000 more than his current position as a manager at an engineering company in Ronkonkoma.

Says Carpenter: “I feel good because I had a couple of interviews and they were very promising.”

Getting a start on a new career

Certificate programs take as little as three or four months, or up to two years or more to complete. Tuition ranges from several hundred dollars for individual courses, to upward of $10,000 for complete programs. You can study for credit (in some cases applicable to an undergraduate or graduate degree), or in a noncredit program, purely for career change or advancement. A high school diploma is generally a prerequisite.

Here is a sampling of local schools with certificate programs:

St. Joseph’s College631-687-4501, nwsdy.li/joseph, for professional certificates, or nwsdy.li/grad for graduate advanced certificates

New York Institute of Technology

516-686-7490, nyit.edu/extended_education

Suffolk County Community College

631-451-4000, sunysuffolk.edu

Adelphi University

516-877-3400

nwsdy.li/adult

— JIM MERRITT

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