For years, JoAnn Banks earned her daily bread managing a commercial cheesecake factory.
When the owners turned off the ovens for the last time in 2007, she decided to retrain as a teacher, the career of her girlhood dreams.
"Losing my job made the decision easier," recalls the 49-year-old mother of two. "Plus, I had tremendous support from my husband and daughters."
Banks, of Bordentown Township, already had a bachelor’s degree in education and history, but quickly learned that wasn’t enough in a job market just beginning to tighten.
So she enrolled in graduate school at the College of New Jersey in Trenton, where in-state tuition and fees average $10,000 a semester. She earned her master’s in special education in May 2009, with a grade point average of 3.55.
She believed her diploma would be a ticket to a fulfilling, well-paying and secure job with great benefits.
"I thought I would find employment right away," Banks says. "I never thought I would be looking this long."
Banks stepped out of the hallowed halls of academia and into a ferociously competitive market in which cash-strapped school districts were downsizing teachers instead of hiring them.
She has yet to find a paying position. But she devotes herself to teaching, tutoring children in her neighborhood and at her church, Jacksonville Presbyterian in Springfield Township.
"Teaching is a passion," says Steve Baker, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, which represents most of the state’s teachers.
"To spend the money to go back to school to qualify for a teaching job shows true passion."
To polish her job-hunting skills, Banks turned to the Professional Service Group at the One-Stop Career Center in Westampton.
"We do mock interviews, which is incredibly helpful," she says. "That preparation is a real confidence booster."
Through networking, Banks landed several interviews.
Each time, someone else got the job.
"I always follow up," she says. "I ask what the person who was hired has that made the difference."
The answer has become a familiar refrain. The teacher who won the position was laid off from another district and has several years of classroom experience. Banks does not.
"The job market is full of wonderful candidates," she admits.
She often wonders if her age is a sticking point.
"When I go on interviews, I compete with people half my age. I’ve even had girlfriends say, "Wouldn’t you rather have someone young and springy working with young kids?’ "
Banks says she has plenty of energy. As she sees it, workers with a few silver hairs represent a golden opportunity for employers.
"I’m the best bang for the buck a school district could ever want," she says. "I’m in perfect health, I won’t be working long enough to collect a big pension and they don’t have to worry about me going on maternity leave."
Under the federal Workforce Investment Act, the government funded training for 672,000 unemployed and underemployed workers in 2009, an increase of 70 percent.
But only two-thirds — 67.6 percent — found jobs after graduation, compared with 83.2 percent in 2006.
A recent study of training programs for health care workers found that for-profit career schools are educating too many nurse’s aides and massage therapists who have little chance of professional advancement.
"For-profit institutions are training health care workers who may have a hard time finding a job or will only find work in jobs at the lower end of the pay scale," according to the study by the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
For example, the average salary for a medical assistant, the most popular health care program at for-profit schools, is $28,650 a year, less than half the $63,750 a registered nurse can expect to earn.
"Students do not get independent advice at a for-profit school regarding their career opportunities," says Julie Margetta Morgan, a policy analyst for CAP.
"The recruiter’s tactics can be aggressive because the goal is to make money for the school."
For-profit career schools are coming under increased government scrutiny through new rules that take effect in 2012. To receive federal funds, schools must show at least 35 percent of graduates are repaying student loans.
In addition, students should not leave school with debts that exceed 12 percent of their expected income.
Edith Giniger, director of the New Jersey Private Career School Association in New Brunswick, did not return calls for comment on the tighter standards. The Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, a national group, filed suit against the Department of Education in January to try to block career school curbs, saying the new law is not "fair, lawful or workable."
Morgan urges prospective students to research schools thoroughly, weighing such factors as accreditation and market demand for various professions.
She also suggests exploring community colleges that are typically less costly than for-profit schools.
"School is expensive," she says. "You can’t afford to make a mistake."
When Sharper Image went out of business in 2008, Shane Michael Duncan lost his job in retail management — and won a second chance at professional fulfillment.
As a teenager, his dream of a career in beauty had burst like shampoo bubbles.
"I had been doing my girlfriends’ hair when they would go on dates or to the prom," he recalls. "I wanted to be a hairdresser — but my father wouldn’t hear of it."
The second time around, Duncan was 38 and calling his own shots. He invested the money from his severance package in retraining, enrolling at PB Cosmetology Education Centre in Gloucester City.
Eager to start making money, Duncan completed a 10-month program in eight months, going to school Monday through Saturday.
"I was driven," he says. "When they opened the school in the morning, I was at the door, waiting."
After graduation, he applied at Verde Salon, only a few blocks from his home in Collingswood. He gravitated toward the shop’s eco-friendly philosophy and hip vibe.
Duncan lacked professional experience. But Verde owner Kevin Gatto recognized his dedication to customer service.
"Shane’s background in retail is a real asset," he says. "I also like that he is mature, a grown-up."
After two years in the beauty business, Duncan, now 40, is earning almost as much as he made in retail after 22 years. He also is teaching cosmetology students at PB.
"My main focus now is to work with people who have been in the business longer than I have so that I can learn all that I can," he says.
In the crystalline glow of hindsight, he views losing his job as a blessing.
"When I talk with someone who has been laid off, I ask "What is your bliss?’ " he muses. "Follow your bliss."
So who should retrain?