Your next career: Where retrained workers are headed
Sunday: The Herald shared some of those students' stories.
Today: A look at what occupations are in demand and how retrained workers could breathe new life into the nation's economy.
Community colleges are ground zero for worker-retraining efforts.
Thousands of laid-off workers are headed back to school — flooding Washington's community colleges and driving up demand for practical, career-focused programs such as health service and business administration.
Suddenly, all eyes are on the colleges, looking to see if they'll be the engines that revive our sputtering economy.
“I think this will be huge,” said Jim Crabbe, director of work force development at the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges. “Almost half of the students enrolled at community colleges are here for work-force training.”
It's no secret that the nation is headed back to school.
With the economy in shambles and national unemployment pushing on the underbelly of 10 percent, two-year colleges are having a recycling effect on workers laid off from distressed industries.
White-collar investment bankers are becoming boat builders. Construction workers are turning into nurses, and travel agents are becoming accountants.
Not all school-bound recession casualties head for community colleges; some return to universities to finish undergraduate degrees, earn a master's degree or even get a doctorate. But most are at two-year schools, looking to reinvent themselves under the umbrella tag of dislocated worker.
A projected 16,000 students will enroll in Washington's community and technical college retraining programs in the fall of next year, more than double the head count just three years earlier. And that's just students who are easily counted.
If students choose to train for what's labeled an in-demand field, the state government will help foot the bill. But the $29 million earmarked to help retrain roughly 6,200 workers last year has proven woefully inadequate in the face of skyrocketing unemployment.
With similar scenarios playing out across the nation, it's fallen on the federal government to find money for work-force training.
There are no typical students — not in the new-student orientations Gina Certain oversees at Edmonds Community College.
Young and old, educated or not, they sit in neat rows, brows furrowed at a string of phrases on the whiteboard. They're trying to understand state and federal grants that will make tuition free — for a while.
Some faces are glum, resting on fists propped up by elbows. Given a different set of circumstances, many wouldn't go back to school. Still, there are 433 worker retraining students enrolled at EdCC this summer, up from 151 just a year ago.
With unemployment making jobs tough to come by, it's the logical time to retool, said Certain, EdCC's worker retraining coordinator.
There's anxiety behind many students' questions: What if we can't find the right classes? What if we get a job before the quarter ends? How will we pay for the rest of the classes when state funding runs out?
Most have been out of classrooms for decades. A few have bachelor's degrees already, and at least one woman has a master's degree.
“The first quarter can be really tough,” adviser Dawn Emerick said. “You're going through a transition, and you need to be really kind and gentle to yourself. Don't overload yourself with classes.”
This isn't the route for everyone. It's not going to help someone who wants to train for a field that isn't hiring, and it's not going to lead to a university transfer.
“So not a career — just a job,” one attendee said.
Emerick had a quick answer: “No, I would say this prepares you for a new career in a new field.”
For community colleges, it's time to shine. But it's also a time of maxed-out budgets and high student demand.
For the first time in their short history, community colleges around the country are imposing enrollment caps, flying in the face of their long-standing credo: Everyone gets in.
“We have record enrollment, and of course, our budgets have been cut like everyone else in the state,” said Crabbe, state director of work force development. “That creates the rub.”
The Legislature slashed funding to community colleges this year by 11 percent for its 2009-11 budget, but federal stimulus money and higher tuition should soften the cut.
At the same time, thousands of additional students are expected to seek entrance to one of Washington's 34 community and technical colleges this fall.
It's a little paradoxical. And it's frustrating for college administrators, sore after decades of being treated like the caretakers of students who didn't quite have the grades to make it into “real” college.
Finally, it looks like someone in Washington, D.C., is paying attention.
During a visit to Michigan last week, President Barrack Obama announced a $12 billion plan to bolster community college graduation rates over the next 10 years. The plan calls for 5 million additional community college graduates by next year.
“Time and again, when we have placed our bet for the future on education, we have prospered as a result — by tapping the incredible innovative and generative potential of a skilled American work force,” he said.
The math points to one thing: Given the number of students who enroll in community colleges for work-force training every year, these stepchild institutions have the potential to rejuvenate the nation's job market, feeding government-funded demand for so-called green jobs and other high-skill occupations.
Though community colleges have long been plagued by low graduation rates, that trend becomes more muted in work-force programs. Worker retraining students graduate at higher rates, and they're better about finishing on time.
Debra Lockard's office is tranquil, fitting for a place where derailed lives are put back on track. There's a desktop water fountain gurgling on a table and Pandora pipes quiet music through speakers.
She turns the music down and double-clicks on an Excel spreadsheet. There are 131 names in the file — 131 people who sat opposite Lockard in her Everett Community College office and asked how to reinvent themselves.
They're on her list because she couldn't find any money right away to help them.
That was back in early April. Lockard, the program coordinator for EvCC's worker retraining, watched her spreadsheet grow over the next few months.
“I don't see it letting up anytime real soon,” she said.
Since mid-April, more than 1,000 students have filed through the college's worker retraining office. Lately, counselors talk with about 25 students a day.
Lockard doesn't understand why people say it's starting to get better. From where she's sitting, the nation's recession looks more critical by the day.
Unemployment is soaring. Statewide, the jobless rate edged to 9.3 percent in June. In Snohomish County, unemployment hit 10.1 percent last month, reaching double digits for the first time in 25 years.
That means fewer occupations workers can transition to with financial assistance from the state. Welders, construction workers and electricians are no longer considered in demand, according to state employment data. Neither are graphic designers, loan officers and dozens of other lines of work.
Even with fewer options, state and federal funding isn't meeting demand. Money for colleges ran dry earlier this year, meaning students had to find other ways to pay for classes.
Tens of millions in federal aid has supplemented community-college retraining budgets, but the colleges know they'll run out again — it's just a mater of when.
Federal money for retraining is distributed to the state's work-force development councils based on resident demographics and need. Snohomish County's share of the most recent award was $3.6 million, but only a part will go to the colleges.
Even with a boost from federal agencies, retraining programs are still in dire straits, said Amy Persell, director of service delivery for the Workforce Development Council Snohomish County.
“There's never enough money,” she said. “It's never going to be enough to meet the need that's out there.”
This report was compiled with assistance from the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Columbia University. Contact Amy Rolph at 425-339-3029 or email@example.com.
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