DECATUR, Ala. (AP) -- There was a time when a tradesman's surname was determined by his profession.

In another time, people worked their entire lives for a company and retired with a pension, a party and a gold watch.

Hatton resident Vickie Harville figures those days are long gone. She was laid off after 31 years of working at Copeland Corp. in Hartselle when the air conditioner parts factory closed in 2011.

She has since been looking for a job with little luck, aside from a part-time stint in home health care that didn't have benefits or cover travel costs.

"I thought I would find a job fairly quickly," she said. "I drove 35 miles to the same place for 31 years."

Harville's story of struggle is not uncommon, but her decades-long tenure with the same company is rare. Americans nowadays change jobs every four to five years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many job candidates and young people preparing to enter the workforce are wondering how to find stability. Companies and educators said stability can be found in skilled labor and technical jobs, many of which can be landed with two-year degrees from small colleges.

Harville, 54, has applied for bank teller positions, plant work, minimum-wage jobs in department stores and other work since she was laid off. Bunge granted her an interview for a material handler position, but she said she never heard back.

"There seem to be jobs out there," she said. "There just don't seem to be any for me."

Local industries such as Polyplex, Carpenter Technology and Busche said skilled workers are hard to come by.

Polyplex hired about 100 workers at an average pay of $48,000 for its Decatur polyester film plant, which began production this month. At maximum staffing, the facility will have 150 employees.

"Our biggest challenge was hiring higher-skilled technicians and maintenance," said Angela Wilson, of Polyplex human resources.

If she was talking to an 18-year-old needing advice on what to study in college, Wilson said, she would tell them to study something with a "technical inclination" involving math and science.

Wilson said many high school graduates make the mistake of thinking a four-year college degree is the only way to make money.

"A maintenance technician at a plant in this area can make $50,000 a year," she said. "Someone with a four-year degree is not going to make much more."

Jim America, of Carpenter Technology's human resources department, called the competition for skilled workers a "talent war."

He said degree fields such as industrial electronics are particularly lucrative. Carpenter is looking for candidates for its Limestone County steel plant in construction who have degrees in metallurgy or material sciences or are familiar with programmable logic controllers, human-machine interface and computer-based manufacturing. The plant will create about 250 jobs.

Busche's incoming air conditioner compressor factory will need machinists, maintenance and other support personnel. The Hartselle facility will create about 250 jobs during three years.

Harville's experience is robust from her varying duties at Copeland, including ordering parts, driving a forklift and packing products. But when she fills out a job application, the education section stares back at her.

Harville won a four-year scholarship to the University of Alabama in Huntsville but attended only one year.

"I've considered going back to school," she said. "A lot of friends say I should go into medical coding and billing, but I don't know what that is."

Reggie Priest, 46, worked nearly 30 years in retail until unpleasant interactions with customers and low pay finally wore him down. After eight years, he quit his job at Handy's TV and Appliance in Decatur and enrolled in the Aerospace Technology degree program at Calhoun.

He will finish his degree work next semester, but he needs money now. He spent the past two months applying for maintenance and mechanic jobs at companies such as United Launch Alliance and Lockheed Martin, hoping his near-graduation status would be enough to land him a job.

Priest said he feels confident about his job search. He said he chose a two-year technical degree over a four-year academic degree because "Decatur's loaded with jobs in industry."

Educators said a stigma attached to trade and skilled labor education is eroding with the revelation that the job fields are often more stable and lucrative than jobs landed with academic degrees.

"I think there's still a mindset that even though you can receive a college degree in a technical field, parents don't think their children can be successful without a degree from a four-year college," said Tad Montgomery, assistant dean of Technology and Workforce Development at Calhoun Community College.

He said advancing technology has created a need for a more rigorous skill set, another contributor to the workforce void.

Limestone County Career Technical Center Director Mickey Glass said the difficulty of seemingly easy courses, like cosmetology, can be surprising, often requiring a great deal of scientific acumen. One student failed cosmetology last year because he couldn't grasp the chemistry required.

Despite the difficulty, Glass said interest in technical jobs has increased in recent years. Student enrollment at the center has grown from about 400 to 532 during four years. The center offers 15 elective programs to students in grades 10-12 in Limestone County.

"Gaining a skill along with a degree is the big thing," he said. "We're not discouraging students from four-year degrees, but we want them to see the value in an associate's degree."

Montgomery said schools are trying to combat the skilled-labor void by ushering students into businesses for hands-on experience. Calhoun has cooperative education and incumbent worker-training programs. A project to partner with local companies to place interns in part-time jobs is in its infancy at the career tech center.

"I feel like it demonstrates the practical applications of education," Montgomery said. "When I was in school, I never understood trigonometry. Before I was in education I worked as a machinist, and that's when trig made sense to me."

Decatur High School junior Michael Higdon is taking aviation maintenance and welding courses at Calhoun. He said he is interested in robotics engineering.

"I don't like sitting in a room all day," he said. "I've always liked hands-on stuff. I want to do something with my hands that makes life better for other people."

He said he might consider finishing up a four-year robotics degree at UAH, but his immediate plan is to earn a two-year degree from Calhoun and see if he can score a job in maintenance.

Dee Dee Jones, secondary curriculum coordinator for Decatur City Schools, said the school system's vision is to build eventually a central site for career tech training for students such as Higdon. Currently, the system partners with Calhoun to send students to basic tech courses.

"Constructing a new building and labs and hiring staff is just too expensive right now," Jones said. "It's cheaper to work with Calhoun and pay them the cost of the tuition."

Jones said Austin and Decatur High students are showing more interest in skilled labor jobs. Enrollment of Decatur students in Calhoun welding classes has tripled since last year, from about 10 to 33.

Decatur and Calhoun have dual enrollment agreements for six classes in English and math that apply toward a college degree and also are transferable to in-state colleges and universities. New dual enrollment classes in the works include fields such as EMT certification, cosmetology, nursing assistant, industrial maintenance, aviation welding and even broadcasting. The classes also would apply toward a college degree at all in-state colleges and universities, Jones said.

The dual enrollment program can make students ready to enter the workforce after graduating high school or prepare them for post-secondary education, Jones said.

AP-WF-05-04-13 1711GMT