WKAR Features
10:50 am
Tue March 9, 2010

reWorking Michigan: No Worker Left Behind Retrains Laid Off Workers

Lansing, MI –

At more than 14.5 percent, Michigan's unemployment rate is the highest in the nation. The state has 300,000 fewer jobs than it did eight years ago. Most of the job losses are attributed to the dramatic decline in manufacturing leading many to believe that Michigan's job market is going through inevitable growing pains as it shifts from manufacturing to hi-tech.

To help ease that transition, Michigan has been retraining displaced workers. More than 100,000 people have gone back to school under the state's "No Worker Left Behind" program. Thousands more are waiting for the chance to get up to two years of free tuition at trade schools, community colleges and universities.

As part of our reWorking Michigan series, we have two reports today on workforce retraining.

First, WKAR's Rob South reports that the programs have given some people new hope.

It's a fairly typical weekday afternoon for Ben Nose and his 5-year-old son Asher. They are making a birthday card for Asher's kindergarten teacher. Nose has been out of work for more than a year. He says the transition from breadwinner to homemaker hasn't been easy.

"I'm 32," he says. "I'm back at my parent's house. I have a son. And I have to go back to college and start all over again. It's frustrating because, a lot of people my age are a lot closer to where they want to be than I am."

Before being laid off from his job at a local transportation company, Nose spent eight years in the military and several years working for the State Department of Corrections. He says the main tools of his trade were a holster and a gun.

"Either the military, fugitive enforcement, which is bail bonds. Doing armored currier, armed security, civilian security, military security. All kinds of stuff."

Nose is now enrolled at Lansing Community College where he'll earn a certificate in computer operations. He says he really wasn't interested in computers until a few years ago. Now that he's learning about online security, he says he's found a new passion.

But learning new skills hasn't been easy.

Retraining workers for the new economy is challenging, in part because the new jobs they're retraining for are so different from where many of them have been in the past, says Doug Stites, director of Capital Area Michigan Works which administers the No Worker Left Behind program for Lansing.

"But when your job, what you used to do is gone, either automated, off-shored, whatever, but not coming back, we try to help people deal with that and recognize that you can't do that, you can't pursue that, you can't wait for it, it's gone permanently," Stites says. "We try to find something that's of interest to do, something they're academically able to do and can be successful at at the same time."

Stites says right now those jobs are in healthcare and information technologies. Both areas have seen modest growth in the state.

Liquidweb is a web hosting service and hires retrained workers from the No Worker Left Behind program. Spokesman Travis Stoliker says the company employs about 180 people at its three local data center. He says mid-Michigan is a good source of talent because of programs like No Worker Left Behind and because its proximity to Lansing Community College and Michigan State University.

"We work very closely with LCC and MSU to access talent so people that are graduating who can come on board at liquid web but also to consult with them on their training programs."

Liquidweb helped LCC develop a "boot camp" for the Linux operating system. One of its graduates is 45-year-old Jim Olson.

"Great place, good people," he says. "Most of those people kept us up and got us into a good environment to get trained in. And when problems cropped up they took care of it pretty quickly."

Olsen started at Liquidweb at the beginning of the year right after finishing the Linux boot camp. That's what Ben Nose is hoping for too. He says trading his sidearm for a computer is a welcome upgrade.

"It'll be very different to sit down at a desk and not have to wonder if I'm going to be shot in the face today, am I going to see my son today," Nose says. "It'll be very different. It's going to be more digital security than physical security."

Nose expects when he graduates this spring, he'll be picked up by Liquidweb or one of several other information technology companies in the area. But in Michigan's ever-shifting job climate, nothing is certain.

Now, a story from Gretchen Millich.

While thousands of laid-off workers have flocked to Michigan's No Worker Left Behind program, the state's unemployment rate remains at an all-time high. And many retrained workers can't find a job in their new field. About a year and a half ago, Patricia Hursh lost her job at Sportcraft Miniatures in Laingsburg. Hursh sought advice from Michigan Works office St John's. They encouraged her to take courses in website design and she did. At the time, it was a growing field.

"I was all excited you know -yeah! - gonna be a website designer, but by the time the class was finishing, the software that was coming out was so much more advanced than what we had just trained on and Yahoo and Google were laying off massive amounts of website designers. And so it was like, oh, I trained for something that was not there."

Undaunted, Hursh went back for more computer training. Now she's looking for a job as a systems administrator.

"I don't want to ever give up hope and I'm hoping that maybe real soon, I find someone that's looking for me."

Steven Williams of Owosso is not so optimistic. Its 9:00 in the morning and Williams is just getting home from the graveyard shift at an auto parts plant where he makes $10 an hour. It's not the job he was trained for. Williams spent the last year and a half getting his bachelor's degree in business administration.

"It's been a great a really great program, but there's nothing around here. A lot of people are saying well there's jobs if you look' and there are jobs. I'm working in a shop. It's just not a job in my field that I went to school in.

"Nobody can guarantee anyone a job over a long period of time."

Jim Jacobs, president of Macomb County Community College, a hub for retraining in Michigan, says for most people, going back to school these days is just like investing in the stock market: it's risky.

"We can tell you that our best guess expanding areas --honest with people that this is not a security ticket"

Jacobs says a lot of older people in Michigan are used to a fairly stable job environment. But that doesn't exist anymore. He tells students that the most retraining can do is increase the odds that they'll get a good job. But Jacobs isn't too worried about these students. His big concern is the people who aren't willing to take the risk of going back to school.

"There are lots and lots of individuals who are unemployed who quite frankly never finishing high school, the people who lack eighth grade reading levels. How do we get them to make the transition in to school?"

Jacobs says those who are eager to learn, like Patricia Hursh, will have a much easier time. And Hursh keeps a positive outlook, even though her unemployment benefits could run out soon. She and her husband have survived before on his disability checks.

"It's not easy, but we garden and I can and I can do almost anything with almost nothing."

For Steven Williams, the wolf is already at the door. His wife was laid off from her job and once their jobless benefits end, Williams says they may have to foreclose on their home and move away to find work.

"If this doesn't work out in the next 6 to 8 months, we're looking at losing our house, it's not like we want to move because a lot of our family is here." Its unclear how many retrained workers are actually finding jobs. Andy Levin, the director of the state Department of Labor and Economic Growth, says the recession makes it difficult to judge the retraining effort. But he says without an educated workforce, Michigan won't stand a chance.

reWorking Michigan
For more on job creation and workforce evolution in Michigan, visit WKAR.org/reworkingmichigan