Down but not out

by Reed Klein
HORIZON Reporter

Every seat is filled at the 8:30 a.m. Dislocated Worker’s orientation in downtown Bellingham, where men and women of all ages listen to a promising alternative to unemployment: Worker Retraining.

Brian Davidson, Worker Retraining coordinator at Whatcom Community College, talks briefly at the orientation about who is eligible for receiving free tuition for college classes in a new career field. Anyone who has lost their job due to a plant closure, layoffs, foreign competition, or lack of demand for their skills, or an unemployed or underemployed person dependent on an income of another but is no longer supported by that income, is eligible. This also includes vulnerable workers who work in a field that is not in demand, like masseuses or automotive factory labor.

Davidson and others within state-funded job training organizations have been working to remodel people’s skills or create new ones to help spring the unemployed back into the workforce.

Since 2007’s mortgage crisis started to appear, programs such as Worker Retraining have had a surge of activity. Enrollment has increased more than 200 percent in the last two years, Davidson said.

After surviving four rounds of layoffs from a pharmaceutical company, Peter Moore was finally laid off in January of 2008. He is now part of that surge in enrollment.

Moore thought he would be able to get another pharmaceutical job. “I looked for six months, and there was nothing in my field,” he recalled. He is married with three kids and found himself suddenly paying healthcare insurance and worrying about putting food on the table. “There was no way I could make it happen.”
Moore had always liked healthcare and nursing was always in the back of his mind, he says. “I didn’t think it was feasible, though,” he said. “It’s a catch-22: I had to have new skills to get a job, but I had to have a job to pay for the new skills. I was pretty much in dire straits.”

But Brian Davidson and Worker Retraining could prove otherwise. After signing Peter off for Worker Retraining state-aid, Davidson set up a plan that would get him his degree. “Brian was incredibly helpful. Not only did he expedite me into the program but he gave me advice along the way.”

When Moore thought he was down and out, without a job or money to pay for new skills, Davidson stepped in with $1,100, allowing Moore to continue his education. “That was huge,” Moore recalled with a sigh.

Being laid off or part of a declining industry is a common profile for students within the program. Construction, warehouse labor, timber industry, and real estate are just some of the backgrounds people come from to seek new employment.

Steve Cope, a former employee of ALCOA in Ferndale, lost his job in the massive layoffs of that company in October 2008. The aluminum company was losing money daily as some of its major buyers, like Toyota, were cutting back production. Cope, now a student in Worker Retraining, saw some logic in going back to school.

“The medical field is recession proof,” Cope said. “I’m getting my degree as a physical therapy assistant. Plus, when the economy is really back to normal, I’ll probably be able to get a job wherever I want.”

Some are even seeking new skills on top of their old ones for jobs that require their employees to keep up with “greener” industry standards.

Through the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, the state provides money to each Worker Retraining program based on the previous year’s enrollment within that program and the unemployment rate of its respective county. The money is often not enough.

According to the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC), all but two Worker Retraining programs during the 2008-2009 year exceeded their budget. The two that didn’t exceed their budget still used 100 percent of it. Although the programs are allowed to carry over leftover funds from past year’s budget, the enrollment trends show that there will be nothing left for next year.

This year’s allocation is already spent, Davidson said, and there is nothing left to cover spring quarter. “The same thing happened last year,” he said, “I don’t know how we did it. It was magic.”

The program is supposed to cover all expenses of the student seeking new job training: transportation, books, lab fees, etc. But the only way Whatcom can successfully meet their budget is to cut these benefits and provide only the cost of tuition.

But the program gets results. According to the SBCTC website, the Worker Retraining program gets positive feedback from 90 percent of its graduates.
“Here, let me show you something,” Davidson says as he walks over to his desk to pick up a jar of plum jelly. He explains that an elderly couple that had recently gone through the program gave him the handmade jelly from their own tree as thanks. “It’s about helping everybody,” Davidson said.

For most students retraining is a sobering trek down a new path. The program itself is stressed by certain classes only offered in certain quarters, making it a potentially long wait for someone freshly laid-off and seeking training in a field that is not offered until next fall.

“Some of these people are making $60,000 to $80,000 a year…. It is a whole lifestyle change that can be very difficult,” Davidson says. “Navigating various bureaucracies; managing to put food on the table; rent!”

“Being laid-off really plays with your emotions,” wrote Katherine Carmichael, a full-time Worker Retraining student in her second term of the Medical Billing and Coding program, “especially your sense of self-worth. It is easy to feel as if you are in the position of retraining because you failed at what you did before.”
Carmichael remains optimistic though, seeing Worker Retraining as “an opportunity to grow, and to be better off in life than I was before.” Advisors like Davidson, she explained, have a deep understanding of an unemployed individual’s experience, which gives her tremendous support for success.

“I’ve never turned someone away,” Davidson said. “If you know someone who is laid off, start asking questions, because there can be a lot of help – better to ask and move forward than spin your wheels. Come see me.”

Moore hasn’t completed his nursing degree yet, but he is confident about the results. He is encouraged by WCC – “a higher quality of instruction and instructors. Their dedication to students is really high,” compared to his first college experience at University of California at Santa Cruz.

For most students and community members alike it is reassuring to have something to fall back on. But the idea, Davidson says, is to have to go to school only once, not twice.