Last updated: February 16. 2013 5:41PM - 731 Views

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The dour economy of recent years has shifted shopping and driving habits and influenced other major life decisions from buying a car or house to choosing a college. Local college administrators say it also has caused a shift in the courses of study students are choosing.

As teacher layoffs make headlines, the number of freshmen declaring education as their major has dropped off. The same is true for other fields where the economy has caused layoffs or downsizing, and for stagnant industries such as architecture and journalism.

Local college officials said as a result students — and their parents — keep an eye on what majors will likely land graduates a job and students have flocked to what Melanie Wade, Wilkes University's vice president for enrollment services, called "clear career path" majors.

Nursing, engineering, occupational therapy and culinary arts are all on the rise as job shortages in those fields are publicized. Computer science also is making a comeback after a few years of declining enrollment.

The advent of Google, Facebook, Twitter — and those who became millionaires thanks to their role in creating them — has spurred students to see if they can invent the next big app such as Angry Birds or the next must have download for smartphones, Wade said.

Teacher glut

A few years ago, there was such a shortage of teachers the state allowed school districts to hand out temporary emergency teaching certificates so schools were adequately staffed. Today, districts throughout the state are dealing with budget cuts, declining enrollments and fewer teacher retirements.

At Crestwood, eight teachers were laid off this year. School boards in Tunkhannock, Lake- Lehman and Hazleton also approved budgets calling for teacher layoffs and students are taking notice.

At Wilkes, elementary education majors enrolled 30 students out of 125 applications in 2007. This fall, out of an application pool of 61, the school will enroll 11 students in the general education major.

Not all schools are seeing interest plummet.

Jane Dessoye, executive director of enrollment management at Misericordia University, said she "feared" the economy and teacher layoffs would reduce the number of students enrolling in that program at the Dallas Township school.

"It did not," she noted.

Health care is hot

Like the teacher shortage of a decade ago, the nursing shortage of today is creating an abundance of job openings and some hospitals are offering signing bonuses or offering to pay off hired nurses' student loans.

At local colleges, students are flocking to nursing, occupational therapy, physical therapy and other medical related fields where patient needs are increasing.

At Wilkes, in 2007, there were 239 applicants for the nursing program. This year that number jumped 21 percent to 303.

At Luzerne County Community College, the local college with the largest graduating class of nurses annually, applications for the program skyrocketed 87 percent since 2008. It also helped, Provost and Dean of the LCCC Nursing School Dana Clark said, that the school "opened its new Health Sciences Center in downtown Nanticoke which features new technology and state-of-the-art equipment for student use."

Clark said the overriding factor in application surges for the program "can be attributed to the nursing shortage in the region as well as nationwide."

Other health care fields are attracting incoming students who see potential careers immediately after earning their degree.

At Misericordia, spokesman Paul Krzywicki said that in recent years the demand for occupational therapists has increased and the interest in among prospective students has followed suit, culminating in a record number of applications received this year.

Placement success

After-graduation employment data supports the trend.

All students who received their master's degrees in occupational therapy from Misericordia in the weekday and weekend entry level programs in May 2011 are employed. All of the weekday master's degree students who graduated this May also are employed, Krzywicki said.

"Despite the slow economic recovery, nursing and related health care occupations are still projected as having the largest number of job openings, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and will continue to be that way in the future," said Mary Ghilani, LCCC's director of career services.

Jim Anderson, director of admissions at King's College, said three of that school's top four gainers in the past few years have been biology, physician assistant and athletic training.

Ghilani said another steady career path students are choosing is culinary arts, "because everyone has to eat, even in a recession." That program saw applications increase 172 percent over the past five years.

The college's recently built Joseph A. Paglianite Culinary Institute, "has also drawn significant attention and interest to our culinary degree programs which are closely linked to career placement and success," noted Rosana Reyes, dean for enrollment management and student development at the Nanticoke-based community college.

Not just money

Not every student chooses a college major based on the odds of landing a job, though some lucked out in choosing a major they love that also happens to be a great one for securing employment out of college.

Niki Patel, 19, of Wright Township, fell in love with engineering at an engineering camp at Penn State Hazleton while she was a Crestwood High School student.

"It definitely was not the economy" that drove her to pick her major, she noted.

The rising junior enrolled in the mechanical engineering program at Wilkes and said she is "very confident" she'll be able to land a job in her field upon graduation. She said she'll likely lean toward some sort of medical field related engineering job because she's learned that's where a great need is right now.

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