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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

Digital skills help old-media types stay abreast

Can you teach an old hack new pix? Pixels and bytes, that is, the ink and film of the new digital media era.

Yes, and in fact, programs that teach old-media types and novices alike how to master the craft and technology of digital media are in great demand. For $20,000, you can get a certificate from the Center for Digital Imaging Arts, which is part of Boston University but located in Waltham. Only two years old, the program takes two semesters to complete, longer if done part time.

It offers tracks in photography, digital filmmaking, graphics and Web design, 3-D animation, and recording arts. Director Robert Daniels said the program attracts career changers as well as people who want to continue doing what they are doing, just with digital media as part of their skill set.

``We are not trying to be an MFA [master of fine arts] program. We are turning out practitioners, so we spend less time talking about it and more time actually doing it," said Daniels.

Rob Rubin, a midcareer, self-employed marketing consultant who took the photography program with financial assistance from the state Department of Workforce Development, said the skills he gained make him more marketable.

``I've always been interested in where photography intersects with public relations," he said, noting that digital photography ``brings a whole new level of efficiency to the process." Whereas at one time a professional might shoot 200 rolls of film and charge big bucks for a few images, Rubin now can offer his clients decent photos as part of a more comprehensive package.

``Not only will I design the campaign for you, but I've got this camera strapped around my back and I'll walk around your company and take pictures," Rubin said. ``I'll charge you something for that, but not the $5,000 a day a professional photographer may have once commanded."

Now back in the working world, his training gives him ``a whole new ability to approach companies and offer digital media services," he said.

Though it sounds very ``new economy," the digital field has been around in one form or another for some time. And Gino Sorcinelli , a professor of accounting and information systems at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has been studying the market for digital skills for two decades. He said programs such as these ``have their finger on the pulse" of what people want and need to stay relevant to the current job market. But, he warned, though the market for such skills currently may be strong, it is always hard to predict conditions a year from now.

``In 1999, everyone and his uncle thought you needed to have an online presence," said Sorcinelli, but when the dot-com bubble burst, many techies lost jobs. In spite of that cautionary tale, continually improving and adding skills is key to staying relevant in a fast-changing world.

At BU, 90 percent of graduates of the first class of the graphics design program found work in their new field within eight weeks of graduation, said Bruce Jaranian , the program's career services director. The numbers were a bit lower for the other programs. But, he said, almost half of students enroll because they want to work for themselves. Of those who went to companies, graduates were hired by firms such as Fidelity Investments and Mad Doc Software, a producer of games. Graduates typically are able to command between $14 and $20 an hour.

For students who can't afford a BU-level program, there are others available at lower costs at community colleges .

When Christian Nelson's career took a turn from pure academics, the former professor specializing in mass communications went to Springfield Technical Community College to indulge a fascination with digital presentation.

``I was interested in the Internet and in educational technology, so I thought it made sense to go back to school to retool and widen my scope," he said.

He came away from the program with enough knowledge of a suite of computer programs to claim basic literacy as a member of the digitally astute. He also got basic graphic design skills and was able to generate a portfolio.

Nelson said he acquired skills that augment his academic background, and he intends to become a political marketer. He is contemplating working for candidates running for elective office.

Daniels, the director of the BU program, said the 300 enrolled students include a neurosurgeon who always wanted to explore filmmaking.

And Joan Ross left a marketing career at Hewlett-Packard to follow her dream of becoming a professional photographer. ``I'm a career switcher," said Ross, as were four in her photography class in the BU program. Now, in addition to shooting events and creating greeting cards, she is taking pictures for the Metro West Daily News. ``I'm starting all over again," Ross said, ``and I'm using the other side of my brain."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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