SPONSORED: Some people know exactly what they want to do after graduating from high school.

Stevie Malaski was not one of those people.

Malaski completed just one semester of college after she graduated from high school in 2009. After that, she moved from job to job for a long time. Anxiety kept her from performing well at work and made it hard for her to stay in a job for more than a few months. It wasn't until she landed a job working at a boarding kennel for dogs and cats that she finally found some stability, confidence — and joy in her work.

"I flourished in the right work environment," Malaski said. She knew she wanted to keep working with animals.

That led her to the University of Alaska Anchorage's Mat-Su College, where this summer she completed her occupational endorsement in veterinary assisting.

Malaski is one of the thousands of Alaskans who pursue job training each year through postsecondary career and technical education programs (or CTE for short). Along with veterinary assisting, University of Alaska CTE students can prepare for jobs ranging from pharmacy work and phlebotomy to welding, tribal justice, rural behavioral health, and fisheries technology.

These skill-based programs offer occupational endorsements that can be obtained in under 30 credit hours (an associate's degree, by comparison, requires a minimum of 60 credits) and prepare students to enter the workforce trained for a specific field.

"This is a program that is more designed to get people out in the field and working," said Dr. Susan Whiton, a Wasilla veterinarian who teaches in the vet assisting program at Mat-Su College. "They make good money, and they're happy with what they're doing."

Skilled jobs, in-demand workers

Although there isn't a lot of data that specifically tracks jobs connected with CTE training, there's no question that in general, more job training correlates to more opportunity.

"Almost all of the good jobs, almost all of the high-paying jobs, almost all of the high-growth jobs are going to require something beyond high school education," said Dan Robinson, chief of the Alaska Department of Labor's Labor Research and Analysis Section.

But that doesn't have to mean an academic degree, and with jobs in the trades now facing labor shortages, even Congress has gotten involved; the U.S. House of Representatives last month passed a bipartisan bill promoting career and technical education.

While Robinson stressed that a bachelor's degree correlates to higher earnings over time, he said there's no doubt that workers who can do jobs that require skilled training — but not necessarily a college degree — are in high demand.

"If you think you're ready for the working world when you're done with high school — you're not," Robinson said. "Earnings are low. Unemployment rates are high. Every level of additional education you get creates a lot more earnings."

CTE programs offer something of a happy medium for students, providing valuable skills and certifications in less time and at significantly lower cost than a degree program.

A CTE program on its own can provide a foundation for a great career, or it can be the first step on a longer journey. Someone who wants to work in health care, for example, might start out by getting an occupational endorsement and working in the field for a while.

"A lot of people who do that get lit up by that work, and they become an RN or a nurse practitioner," Robinson said. "You're not choosing this fork in the road; you're choosing to continue your education."

To help make occupational endorsements more accessible and help get more people into skilled jobs in growing industries, this fall the University of Alaska will reduce tuition for 50 CTE programs and 305 courses.

The 25 percent discount will make it more affordable for Alaskans to earn certifications in fields like health care information, supply chain operations — and some fields that are uniquely Alaskan.

University of Alaska Fairbanks students, for example, can earn a Rural Human Services endorsement that balances traditional knowledge with modern medical practices and is designed to meet job requirements for Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium behavioral health aide positions. Most of those students go on to complete a two-year Rural Human Services certificate, according to Program Head Diane McEachern.

At the University of Alaska Southeast Sitka campus, Fisheries Technology students can opt to take select courses in an "off the grid" format, with course materials provided on a waterproof, go-anywhere iPad, letting them complete classwork remotely, whenever and wherever they choose. The fisheries endorsement, which was designed with input from the fishing industry, can be completed in as little as a single semester, said Program Director Reid Brewer.

Hands-on training, more opportunity

The 21-credit vet assisting program at Mat-Su College provides students with a foundation in the nitty-gritty of vet clinic life, Whiton said. They start off with the gross stuff — blood and things that stink — then learn anatomy and physiology, animal behavior, and best practices for animal care, cleaning and handling. Most critically, the program includes 135 hours of practicum, for which students are placed with local veterinarians.

"This program gets you into the clinic," Whiton said. "That relationship is really important. We need the clinics to provide our students with that real-world experience."

The mean hourly wage for a veterinary assistant in Alaska is $15, according to the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, and at the high end it's closer to $19 or $20. That's better than the majority of jobs in retail, food service and hospitality, and with a rosier employment outlook than many other industries. The endorsement is versatile, too, Whiton added; it's helpful for someone who wants to work in any role at a vet clinic, including as a receptionist or office manager.

That's a possibility being considered by one of Whiton's students, Mercedes Houlton. Like Malaski, Houlton started the vet assisting program in the fall of 2017 and will finish at the end of the summer term. At the same time, Houlton is pursuing an associate's degree in business management at Mat-Su College.

"I think having a business degree will give me an extra step up in my career in veterinary medicine by understanding not only the medical side of it, but also the management side of it," Houlton explained.

Houlton has been working on her practicum at Wasilla Veterinary Clinic, which she said has been her favorite part of the program.

"I learn much better in a hands-on atmosphere," Houlton said. "I think there's a big difference between learning something in a book and actually doing it with a live animal."

'Now I have the confidence to set new goals'

With completion of her occupational endorsement on the horizon, Malaski was ready to reflect on the ways her life has changed in just a year of study.

"I was hesitant at first about attending school at all because it had been so long since I was in school," she said. "I was worried and had self-doubt, but when I reviewed the costs for the program I felt better about the decision. I felt like some of the weight of my worries was lifted from my shoulders."

Even though financial aid helped offset her costs, like many OE students, Malaski had to balance schoolwork with "real world" responsibilities.

"It was hard to make time to do some extra studying in between working at Lowe's as a cashier part-time and moving into a new house," she said.

The extra studying was a must when it came to passing her anatomy and physiology course — but it paid off. For Malaski, success in her CTE program has been a source of accomplishment and pride.

"I'm proud of myself taking that jump and applying to go to college, setting goals and accomplishing them," she said. "Now I have the confidence to set new goals professionally for myself and continue learning and growing."

Beginning fall semester 2018, the University of Alaska will reduce tuition rates by 25 percent in selected Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs. Click here to learn more about CTE and the programs available.

This article was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with University of Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.