June 4, 2010


This is something that's always stuck in my craw. When the economy is bad (you know, bad for us, not the rich), the politicians love to tell us it's simply a matter of retraining and why, before you know it, we'll all be employed again!

I think we all know that's a load of horse manure. The fact is, for most of us, the global economy is a tide that just keeps going out. Major corporations continue to play "find the cheapest country" and move their manufacturing facilities. So where, exactly, are the jobs for which we're supposed to retrain?

Enrollment in job-training initiatives across the USA has swelled since the recession began as dislocated workers in shrunken industries such as manufacturing, construction and real estate retool for growing fields such as health care, renewable energy and computers. But a diploma is not necessarily a ticket to a job or higher earnings, especially with the jobless rate still hovering near 10%.

"Training doesn't create jobs," particularly as a nation emerges from recession, says Anthony Carnevale, head of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. "It's jobs that create the demand for training."

Many enrollees do land positions weeks after graduating, and experts say retraining is often the best option for a laid-off worker in a battered industry. But others hunt for months, or even years, with some using federal dollars to retrain multiple times for different occupations. Part of the problem: Though economists say the recession ended last summer, high unemployment pits graduates against both experienced workers who were laid off in the slump and newly trained colleagues. Sometimes job centers funnel too many workers into the same field.

Officials "in my system walk a tightrope every day," says Jane Oates, an assistant secretary for the Labor Department. "It's very difficult to do 100% foolproof projections anytime, but during a recession it's really complicated."

Job forecasts can be undercut by unforeseen events such as a plant closing. The promise of some categories projected to be plentiful, such as green jobs, has yet to be fulfilled. And the training system itself is beset by poor communication.

Participation in worker retraining funded by the federal Workforce Investment Act (WIA) jumped 70% to 672,000 in the year ended last June, Labor says. But the portion of those in jobs related to their training one year after graduating fell to 67.6% from 83.2% in 2006.

Wyman got $16,500 in federal funding to attend the Hobart Institute of Welding Technology after his employer, a Delphi auto plant, closed. The Huber Heights, Ohio, resident was always good with his hands; at Delphi, he operated a drill and stamping press. And welders' wages start as high as $19 an hour, a nice bump from the $16 he'd been earning.

Asked about Wyman's job search, Heath MacAlpine of Montgomery County's Department of Job and Family Services, says the region's manufacturing and construction were pounded by the recession. But he says funding Wyman's training wasn't a mistake: "We're not investing for this recession. If we don't have the stockpile of trained talent, we're not going to have the fuel to drive this recovery."

As employers ramp up hiring, he says, they'll run out of laid-off welders and Wyman "will suddenly find himself in demand."

Wyman isn't sure how long he can wait. He and his wife, Jessica, borrow from her parents to pay the rent, and the couple and their two children are relying on food stamps. He frets if he doesn't find work soon, he'll get rusty and "lose the ability to weld."

Other jobless workers are turning to health care, a hot sector that typically promises a near-certain road to employment. Matt Moceri of Shelby, Mich., lost his job last July as a manager for a large home builder. So he took a six-week, $1,800 course at Macomb Community College to be a certified nursing assistant, a field Labor says will grow 19% by 2018.

"I thought of it as recession-proof," says Moceri, 31, who is married with two children.

After volunteering at a hospital's cardiac unit, he landed a similar paying job at St. John Macomb-Oakland Hospital. He works the night shift, tending to up to 16 patients, including their food and toileting needs and checking vital signs. While he loved his building job, "it pales in comparison" to the rewards of health care. "You're taking care of every aspect of the human being. They have another lease on life, and I feel I have a part in that."

His $30,000-a-year pay is far less than his construction wage. But he expects to make $60,000 or more when he gets more training, possibly to be a nurse.

Yet a volatile job market for nurses underscores the vagaries of job training. Registered nursing leads all occupations with projected job growth of 581,000 by 2018, Labor says. Nursing graduates, however, have been scrounging for jobs for six months or longer in many areas because of a rare glut of nurses, job-service officials say. With their husbands laid off, many older female nurses put off retirement, and retirees came back to work. Also, hospitals have less revenue in the downturn.

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