Stimulus Funds Can Retrain You for the Post-Recession World

Restarting America's Job Machine, stimulus funds help workers retrainThis is the fourth in a series of stories that takes a closer look at the U.S. jobs picture.

Debra McKinley of Homewood, Ill., just landed a job as a senior administrative assistant at Northern Trust (NTRS), a financial services company in Chicago.

McKinley is naturally pumped about going back to work on May 10, after over a year of looking for a job. She knows what to expect, having previously worked for 21 years at a large law firm as an administrative assistant. But this time round, she feels more confident about taking on new challenges and is positive that she'll move up the management track.

McKinley's confidence stems from a free six-month vocational training program that she signed up for with Able Career Institute, a nonprofit counseling, placement and training service based in Chicago that receives public and private financing. "The interviewing skills really helped me shepherd my own interview with poise," says McKinley, who's also learning other skills that are typically offered in a management course. She was able to take the course as part of a grant Able received under the American Recovery Reinvestment Act, better known as the stimulus bill.

You've Already Paid, So Take Advantage

Indeed, training programs such as McKinley's, college courses and retraining for people who have lost jobs are being offered for free at many institutes and community colleges that have received similar government grants. Today, more than ever, federal programs fund hundreds of courses. That's because the government is desperate to help people find jobs, especially if the industry they previously worked in is shrinking, their jobs have gone overseas or are becoming obsolete.

"Many people are eligible for these free programs," says Margo Brewer, senior education director at Able Career Institute, which also provides training to jobless individuals through the Workforce Investment Act. "It's important that people access the programs, since they've already paid for them in taxes and will continue to pay in future."

Indeed, the stimulus bill has set aside millions of dollars to retrain the American work force. For instance, if you live in Michigan and lost your job in the auto industry, the state's No Worker Left Behind plan can give you up to $5,000 per year for tuition.

Workers like electricians or mechanics elsewhere who might have worked at an apparel plant or appliance factory that closed down because the work was shipped overseas can use those skills at new jobs with some extra training. For instance, technicians can learn how to weatherize buildings and homes to help businesses and households save on energy bills. Under Trade Adjustment Assistance, which was expanded in the stimulus bill, these workers can get as much as 2.5 years of unemployment checks and 26 weeks of remedial education.

White-Collar Workers Can Get Help, Too

Education programs are available to all income groups. On April 28, Wayne State University of Detroit announced that it's offering a Executive & Professional Development reemployment program to 350 displaced, white-collar workers. It will be available to them for free and is specifically designed for displaced white-collar workers in management, administration, engineering, design, technology and other professional occupations. It will be funded by a grant from the Michigan Works Agency.

"The program consists of a mix of coaching, clinics and courses available for the participants, including leadership and employee development and entrepreneurship," says Ahmad Ezzeddine, associate vice president for educational outreach and international programs at Wayne State. On average, such programs would have cost a participant between $1,500 to $3,000.

Overall, the stimulus bill provides for as much as $1.7 billion for adult employment services, including education and training. Last year, President Obama also announced an initiative to grant $12 billion of aid to community colleges, which should be passed on to students in the form of affordable education.

"One-Stop Career Center"

Most educators and labor experts say the best way to find about these programs is by visiting a local county workforce agency. These offices administer each state's employment and workforce information services, and keep information on the training centers and colleges that the Department of Labor has approved to offer the programs. In 2009, 37 million job-seekers sought assistance through state workforce agencies, a 40% increase from the previous year.

"The workforce agency is a one-stop career center that can guide people who want to acquire new skills to training centers," says Pamela Tate, president and CEO of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, a national nonprofit organization.

With so many workers out of a job, the number of people who are going back to colleges for additional degrees or retraining has shot up. Enrollment at community colleges jumped 27% last year, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

Some educators say all these trends show how fast the labor markets are shifting and that people should consider updating their skills even during good times.

"There's a tremendous amount of change going in the job market generally worldwide with big impacts coming from information technology, corporate mergers, globalization," says Charles R. Hickox, dean of Continuing Education & Outreach at Eastern Kentucky University. "People have to start thinking of their skills and knowledge and how to keep enhancing them with lifelong education." In today's world, that's the surest way to lifelong employment.

Editor's Note: This is the fourth installment of our six-part special report: Restarting America's Job Machine.

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