Victor Low says he was born in the hospitality field. His parents have been running a Chinese restaurant in a small village in Germany for 36 years. So Low's most recent job as a catering manager in the San Gabriel Valley was a natural progression.
But then he got laid off — like so many other Angelenos in the food and hospitality industry — and decided to quit the industry for good. "All my colleagues and me, we got hit so hard by this pandemic," Low said.
Now Low, who's 36, is back in school, working on an associate degree in cybersecurity at Pasadena City College. It's thought to be a pandemic-proof field with good wages. And, after only a year of classes, Low expects to have three certificates, in cybersecurity, network administration and help desk/user support.
In all, he estimates it'll cost him around $3,000.
"I'm just so excited to turn this page," he said, adding that he's thankful to PCC for giving him "the skills to make yourself valuable in this new world."
Computer support specialists are among 10 pandemic-proof, living wage occupations identified in a recent report from the Center for a Competitive Workforce, which provides job market analysis for L.A.'s community colleges.
The L.A. area is expected to have more than 1,100 job openings for computer support specialists each year through 2024, with entry-level wages of $44,900 a year. And yet, far fewer local students complete community college programs that would set them up to get those jobs, according to the report.
Five of the 10 frontline or essential jobs identified by the center generally require a year or less of higher education. These are:
- Bookkeeping, accounting & auditing clerks
- Licensed vocational and licensed practical nurses
- Paralegals & legal assistants
- Social & human service assistants
- Computer user support specialist
Report author Shannon Sedgwick hopes the information will help current and prospective students — especially those juggling family and other obligations — to be aware of potential pathways to better-paying jobs that don't require a four-year college investment.
"There's this perception that everybody needs to have at least a bachelor's degree to be successful and that's not necessarily the case," said Sedgwick, who directs the Institute for Applied Economics at Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. (The CCW has also profiled many other middle-skill jobs.)
The data is also intended to help community colleges align their offerings with the needs of local industries.
The center also looked at promising high-skill positions in frontline industries. These include:
- Accountants and auditors
- Social workers
- Financial managers
- Market research analysts and marketing specialists
- Software developers/Quality assurance analysts and testers
Even though employers often want to see a bachelor's degree for such high-skill jobs, Sedgwick said people already working in these fields, or with the proven skills that employers are looking for, may be able to get hired without a bachelor's degree.
Frontline Jobs: Pandemic-Proof But Often Risky To Health
Frontline industries in Southern California have provided a mixed blessing for many of their workers during the pandemic: stable employment that often comes with high risk of exposure to the coronavirus (think grocery store workers) and low wages.
According to the Center for a Competitive Workforce, during the first half of 2020, employment in the Los Angeles basin dropped 23.6% among non-essential workers, but just 6.3% among essential workers.
But many essential workers have the benefits of a stable, well-paying job and greater protection from virus exposure, including many of the jobs highlighted in the report.
Still, many essential workers will continue to be at-risk on the job.
According to the report: "Turning recommended safety guidelines into stricter policies and expanding access to personal protective equipment is a necessity. Businesses in these industries should also be encouraged to consider stronger social distancing, flexible worksite and workforce scheduling mechanisms and mask-wearing requirements."
Pandemic As Opportunity?
The vast majority of job losses in California during the pandemic have been among workers without a bachelor's degree, the state Legislative Analyst's Office reported in December.
Unlike in past recessions, the unemployed haven't flocked back to school for retraining — yet. Some local community colleges lost nearly a quarter of their students last fall. Lack of childcare, job loss, health issues and the switch to online learning all contributed to the enrollment decline.
But with an eventual end to the pandemic in sight, many economic and academic leaders see a big role for colleges to retrain people whose jobs have vanished. "This is a moment to think about new pathways for adults as a solution to the pandemic-induced recession," said Danette Howard, chief policy officer at Lumina Foundation, which advocates for increased access to higher education.
Howard believes colleges should work toward offering "stackable" credentials, such as industry-recognized certificates, so that students can turn their education into jobs as they go. That way, if a student has to leave school before completing their bachelor's degree, say, because of a family emergency, "I would at least have that certificate," Howard said.
Currently, she pointed out, 5.7 million Californians have some college credit but no degree.
Federico Saucedo, interim dean of career education and workforce development at Glendale Community College, said understanding which job and wage possibilities lie at the other end of a college program is key to giving would-be students the confidence to commit — especially workers displaced during the pandemic.
"At the top of their list is going to be stability," Saucedo said.
He said potential students also need to think about — and ask academic counselors about — the lifestyle and working conditions associated with a particular career path: Will I be able to work remotely? Will I have to work on weekends?
For Low, the former catering manager, a big motivation to switch from the hospitality field to cybersecurity lies in the answer to those questions. Catering often involves late nights and busy weekends, which could be hard to square with the family he hopes to start with his girlfriend.
He hopes his new career will give him more flexibility. "As you get older, you realize that time is probably your most valuable asset," Low said. "You understand that the people around you get older, and your parents, and you just want to be there for everybody."
This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2020 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.