Job Retraining May Fall Short of High Hopes

CLINTON TOWNSHIP, Mich. — For the second time in three years, Mike Hutchins, a laid-off automotive engineer, is preparing to enroll in job retraining at a local community college, this time to become a civil engineering technician. But he has no idea if he has chosen the right path.

“I’m fumbling around in the dark,” said Mr. Hutchins, 58.

The industry where Mr. Hutchins worked for 25 years has shriveled. The courses in computer-aided design that he finished last year in his initial effort at retraining failed to lead to employment. “I’m looking for a job that will give me some type of a future,” he said.

Tens of thousands of laid-off workers like Mr. Hutchins have turned to retraining as a lifeline. Yet for all the popularity of these government-financed programs, there are questions about whether they actually work, even as President Obama’s stimulus plan directs $1.4 billion more to retraining and other services for people who have lost their jobs.

In Michigan, where the unemployment rate in May was 14.1 percent, the nation’s highest, 78,000 people are enrolled in the state’s No Worker Left Behind program and 7,800 are on the waiting list. At the Michigan Works job center here, where Mr. Hutchins applied for retraining money, the wait to attend an orientation session is up to two months.

Nonetheless, a little-noticed study the Labor Department released several months ago found that the benefits of the biggest federal job training program were “small or nonexistent” for laid-off workers. It showed little difference in earnings and the chances of being rehired between laid-off people who had been retrained and those who had not.

In interviews, the authors of the study and other economists cited several reasons that retraining might not be effective. Many workers who have lost their jobs are older and had spent their lives working in one industry. In need of a job right away, many pick relatively short training programs, which often have marginal benefits. Job retraining is also ineffective without job creation, a point made by several economists who have long cautioned against placing too much stock in it. Finally, workers trying to pick a new field cannot predict the future of the labor market, especially in a time of economic upheaval.

“I can’t tell you with any degree of certainty, and I’ve been doing it for 20 years, what the hot jobs are going to be,” said one of the authors, Kenneth R. Troske, an economics professor at the University of Kentucky.

An examination by The New York Times of one group of laid-off workers — 36 people who finished their retraining at Macomb Community College just outside Detroit at about the same time as Mr. Hutchins, from May to August 2008 — found that at least 60 percent appeared either not to be working or to be in jobs unrelated to their training.

Several had jobs but then lost them later, according to state wage records and interviews. And a review of wages for several employed workers before and after training showed that almost all had lost ground.

Kelly White, 55, spent 30 years in the printing industry before her job disappeared because of automation. So in January 2007, about a year after Ms. White was laid off from a small company, where she earned $16 an hour, she began studying for an associate’s degree at Macomb Community College to become a repairer of electronic equipment.

Before enrolling in classes, Ms. White checked state labor market data and found that hers was a field where jobs were expected to grow robustly — a requirement for Michigan Works to pay for up to $10,000 in classes over two years.

But after finishing her degree in May 2008 with a 3.45 grade-point average, she found the market for electronics service technicians to be smaller than she had expected. She believes that it has also become saturated with unemployed people who have more experience than her.

“Unfortunately, by the time I graduated, the whole economy, especially here in southeast Michigan, went south,” Ms. White said. In the Detroit area, the 10-year projection for her field by state analysts now shows a 1.2 percent decline.

After several months of unsuccessfully seeking work related to her degree, Ms. White landed a part-time job driving a school bus. It pays $13 an hour.

Andy Levin, deputy director of the Michigan Labor and Economic Growth Department, pointed out that the state’s economic woes made it hard to judge its retraining efforts. But Mr. Levin said he believed the state’s focus on longer-term training for occupations showing growth would bear fruit.

“My position is this: Unless you have a highly educated work force, you really don’t have much of a chance,” he said.

Mr. Hutchins lost his $86,000-a-year job at an automotive supply company in late 2005 and, after being unable to find work for two years, took classes in a computer system used by designers in the auto industry and elsewhere. Even though the auto industry has imploded, industrial design is still listed as a “demand occupation” and is eligible for training money. (Case managers at the job center here said they often scratched their heads over what occupations state labor market analysts identified as “high growth.”)

After he finished training in May 2008, Mr. Hutchins actually landed a job as an automotive engineer, unrelated to the classes he took. But he was again laid off in October.

He has since sent out as many as 15 résumés a day but has had no interviews. The design jobs he has found seem to require at least two years’ experience.

The No Worker Left Behind program normally gives participants one chance at retraining. Desperate, Mr. Hutchins’s wife, Jill, wrote a letter to Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan, attaching his résumé and asking for advice.

In part because of help from Ms. Granholm’s office, Mr. Hutchins won approval for additional training. But what should he study this time?

Hearing about efforts to attract the film industry to Michigan, the couple wondered if he might become a grip, adjusting sets and lighting. They concluded that there were probably not enough jobs to be had.

They seized upon the stimulus program’s investment in public works as a place for job growth. But Mr. Hutchins confessed he was uncertain whether those jobs would still be around in a year and a half when he finished his civil engineering classes.

“It’s a crap shoot,” he said. “You’re gambling with your life.” (New York Times)

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