A tight job market amid staggering layoffs nationwide has a growing number of adults flocking to GED test preparation classes in Arizona and around the country.
In Mesa alone, the program director expects to offer four times as many classes this fall as he did last year.
The test to earn General Education Development credentials is the same nationwide. It is the baseline requirement for most jobs. For many in Arizona, it's also a path to postsecondary education and training, said Karen Liersch, deputy associate superintendent of adult education services at the Arizona Department of Education.
Free GED preparation classes are offered throughout the Valley. The state funds a number of these programs. According to ProLiteracy, which provides a nationwide directory of adult literacy and education programs online, there has been a marked increase in class interest nationwide.
The exam tests students' knowledge of math, science, social studies and English.
About half of those who take the GED test in Arizona don't pass the first time, said Susan John, Rio Salado College's coordinator for adult education in the East Valley. But that's not stopping people from trying.
One reason is the job market. For many positions, a GED or high school diplomacy equivalent is required.
Adults also seek their GED to help improve their income. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, adults who finish their high school diploma or GED earn an additional $9,000 annually.
In Arizona, 21 percent of adults lack a high school diploma, Liersch said. That is just below the national average of 22 percent.
A report by the Arizona Department of Education shows that the waiting list to get into classes for basic reading, writing and math or high school-level science, social studies, reading, writing and math grew from 2,342 in June 2007 to 4,025 December 2008. Each year, about 22,000 adults take the GED test, Liersch said.
The adult community education department in the Mesa Unified School District runs GED classes at several school sites. It's funded through state and federal grants, not money the state provides the district for kindergarten through 12th-grade education.
Director Bill Christen said last fall he offered five sections of GED preparation classes for about 95 students. This spring, there are eight sections and 148 students. In a few months, he expects to run 20 sections with about 240 students.
"This is a phenomenon happening across the state. The state Department (of Education) is asking the programs in place to add more GED sections because they're anticipating a surge, which we've already experienced," Christen said. "Half of our students need it for advancement for jobs they currently have. The other half are those who need it just to get employment."
John said she's seen similar growth in Rio Salado's programs. In Gilbert, classes are held at the Maricopa Workforce Connections One Stop Center.
"We have noticed a remarkable increase," John said. "This is, of course, because jobs are scarce and the most skilled will earn the job. The GED becomes important for them."
John said one student in a Scottsdale class this week is a 61-year-old man who works at a casino. In order to keep his job, he has to complete his GED.
Older learners often must cross a mental bridge to get their GED, John said, because they've been out of school for so long.
"I told this guy last night, 'You've been learning all your life. These are the skills that apply to the GED. It's not like you stopped learning the day you quit school,'" she said. "A lot of them won't take the test until some injection of self-esteem."
Free classes are also available at the Chandler Public Library. Because of limited space, the library has not increased the number of classes offered. But more and more people are using the library and the library's resources to complete online, self-paced GED preparation programs, as well as job searches, said Marybeth Gardener, administrative librarian.
"Our classes are always full, but throughout the library system we are seeing library usage on the rise," she said.
Goodwill offers GED classes to 23 students at its career center in Chandler, said Sanzanna Lolis, Goodwill's director of youth services. It takes between six and eight months to complete the program, she said.
"The program is open-enrollment and open-schedule, so students are able to work towards completion of their GED based on their availability with work and other commitments," she said. "There has been a steady increase in the number of individuals utilizing the services."