Monday, July 6, 2009

Stimulus offers new hope, job skills

Federal money funds training for high-demand jobs By Bonna Johnson • THE TENNESSEAN • July 6, 2009 TRACKING THE STIMULUS: New Training for Jobless In four years, Mark Hicks has lost four jobs in Tennessee's hard-hit manufacturing field. The first company moved overseas, and then Peterbilt Motors Co. transferred operations to Texas. Another employer, which made seats for Nissan, terminated temporary workers when sales slowed, and he lost his last job in October, just two months after getting hired, in a round of layoffs. "I've felt like the unluckiest person around," said Hicks, who worked in quality control in what he sees as a fading industry. The 42-year-old Hendersonville man is hoping to improve his fortunes with a midlife career change. In January, he completed a computer tech course and is studying to get certification, which could help him land a job as an information technology professional or a PC technician. The $2,000 course fee was covered by the state through a job-training program for so-called dislocated workers — people who are on unemployment benefits or facing layoffs. Such programs across the country are getting a big boost through federal stimulus funds just as unemployment in Tennessee soars into double digits and the national jobless rate inches closer to 10 percent. In Tennessee, some $29 million in stimulus funds will go to train 10,000 workers over the next 2½ years in high-demand fields such as health care and clean energy, as well as truck driving, welding and scores of other occupations. The state is getting an additional $11 million in stimulus money to train unemployed and underemployed adults. "You have to go with the way the economy is going, so you have to get into something you can make a living at and survive on," said Hicks, who's had one job or another in manufacturing since getting a two-year degree in machine shop technology after high school. The stimulus funds will double how much the state typically spends each year to put dislocated workers on paths to new careers, said Susan Cowden, administrator of employment and work force development at the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Since April, when funds became available, nearly 1,000 Tennesseans have started training. About $778,000 in stimulus funds have been spent for dislocated workers. State officials expect another spike in enrollment in August when fall classes start. Although a respectable 91 percent of workers who finished training programs in 2007 found jobs, the state failed to meet other federal thresholds, resulting in the loss of some federal funds last year, Cowden said. With 2,500 General Motors workers at the Spring Hill plant facing layoffs in November, the state is applying for an additional $2 million in emergency grants and will create a mini-career center near the plant to help GM workers make the transition into training, she said. Those funds, which could come from the stimulus package, will also help train workers at suppliers for GM, including Penske, Premier and Johnson Controls. Workers upgrade skills With jobless rates soaring, training programs can be lifelines for those who have lost their jobs, said Carl Van Horn, professor of public policy and director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "The older the worker is, the more he or she needs to either change careers entirely or upgrade skills they have within their current occupation, and both require training," Van Horn said. Hicks is optimistic the computer skills he's learning could help him launch a new career, but he's not entirely sure the training program alone will work. "They like seeing your degree and certification, but they also want experience," Hicks said. "If you can't get into a company where you can get experience, but they want experience, it's kind of a Catch-22." And, even if he never lands a job in the IT field, like working for Best Buy's Geek Squad, the degree and certification are "always a good thing to have on your resume," he noted. In the meantime, he's been attending networking events and seminars on job hunting through the Nashville Career Advancement Center and Brentwood-based Career Transition Support Group. The training program is helping Bill McIntire, 54, stay in the computer-programming field and upgrade his skills. "I have basic skills for programming," he said. "But more companies are using server and Web-based applications." He started training last week and hopes to get three certifications by early next year. Tennessee's job-training program placed 2,173 workers in jobs of the 2,388 who exited the program in 2007, a 91 percent employment rate, better than the national average of 72.5 percent. The state also outpaced the national average in the percentage of workers who are still in their jobs after six months, at 92.8 percent, compared with 87.2 percent nationally. "We feel so good about these levels," Cowden said. "We have really targeted training programs to areas that lend themselves to high placement." At the same time, though, the program fell short of federal targets in retention and earnings as higher goals were set each year the state did well. Shortcomings in the Memphis area and some rural areas in West and East Tennessee lowered overall performance, Cowden said. The worsening labor market is expected to make it harder for those in training to find high-paying jobs once they exit the program, and state officials have requested lower performance goals, Cowden said. Stimulus has critics In the Nashville area, a maximum of $4,000 can be spent on training per worker, said Paul Haynes, executive director of the Nashville Career Advancement Center. There are some exceptions, including the amount available to those in nursing programs and dental hygienists, he said. Workers who need bus passes, child care and uniforms can also request financial help through stimulus funds. Scores of state schools, community colleges and private campuses offer approved job training. Some stimulus funds will create new training classes, including $1 million at Walters State Community College for a clean energy curriculum and $200,000 at Austin Peay State University to train technicians for jobs at Hemlock Semiconductor Corp., a company that recently broke ground on a $1.2 billion plant in Clarksville, Tenn. An additional $4 million will go to state schools to increase the number of classes available to workers. This point is a source of criticism to some. The trainers are the ones really benefiting," said Nate Benefield, director for policy research at the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, a frequent critic of the stimulus. "It's not clear whether workers are benefiting." Benefield also noted that training programs end up helping only a small number of the unemployed. "These are feel-good programs, visible things, but it doesn't do much for the statewide or national economy." But Van Horn, the public policy professor, countered that training programs have the power to transform people's lives. He says there is no real evidence that trainers, not workers, are the ones who really benefit. "The fact is that the administrative costs for training programs are quite low," Van Horn said. "It's important to have realistic expectations," the professor said. "The older you get and the more experienced you are in the work force, the less likely it is that you can get a job that pays as much as you had when you were laid off. But, hopefully, it will be a stable job, and it's better than not having a job at all."

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