Retraining one answer to job loss situation

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Tamika Macon Akers is the model of the Great Recession success story.

Before the economic downturn, Miss Akers had the type of job that defined security. She was a data entry clerk for the U.S. Postal Service. She expected to retire from the job with a nice pension after spending a few decades in a position that she said was mind-numbing.

Then came 2008. In September of that year, the extent of the recession started to become clear as Wall Street firms began to melt down.

Miss Akers, 35, of Forest Hills, lost her job, along with 476 co-workers in November 2008. In January, she started a program at Community College of Allegheny County for dislocated workers, which waived her tuition and trained her in biotechnology.

She graduated on a Thursday in May 2011 and started a job growing cells in a medical laboratory in Blawnox the following Monday. Her pay is "a lot more" than she was making at the post office.

The program, run out of the Career Transition Center for Dislocated Workers at the community college, is working with the same model used in the 1980s after the collapse of the steel industry locally, said Charles Blocksidge, the college's executive director of special projects.

The current dislocated workers program geared up in 2009. It has graduated 240 students and another 40 are still enrolled. Participants can study biotechnology, as Miss Akers did, information technology, business management, nursing and accounting.

The program was much bigger in the 1980s. In 1983, CCAC enrolled 7,273 unemployed workers in retraining courses. Participants had a completion rate of more than 99 percent and a job placement rate of 79.6 percent.

That version of the Dislocated Workers Educational Training Program ran for two years at a cost of $8.4 million. Allegheny County covered $5 million. Funding issues changed the program after that as it struggled along for a few more years.

The current Career Transition Center for Dislocated Workers at CCAC was opened as a response to the high unemployment of 2008 and does not have any dedicated funding. David Hoovler, a spokesman for the college, said CCAC has absorbed the lost tuition. Some of the programs, such as the one in biotechnology, have some grant money.

"No one grant has covered all of it," he said.

Mr. Blocksidge said the college does not have good statistics on how many people who have found jobs out of the program. The college is working as it can, using financial aid and enrolling students in open seats in classrooms that might have otherwise gone empty.

The U.S. recovery since the 2008 recession has been marked by long-term unemployment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 40.8 percent -- or 5.6 million of the 13.1 million unemployed Americans -- have been out of work longer than six months. As of December, the average duration of unemployment was about 10 months. Nationally, the unemployment rate was at 8.5 percent in December.

The U.S. Department of Labor and Industry reported Allegheny County's unemployment rate at 6.9 percent for November, the most recent month available.

In this region, one of the ongoing employment issues, according to the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, is a disconnect between skills that employers need and the skills unemployed workers have.

Some of that can be helped with additional training. Stefani Pashman, the CEO of the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, said her organization recently realized there is going to be a need for pipe fitters and linemen to work on utilities, and it has begun working with CCAC to develop certificates for those occupations.

Manufacturers are also looking for highly trained machinists for computer-operated precision machining, she said.

Ms. Pashman sees a disconnect between available occupations and the educational system. She said some high school students aren't going to college and would be better served with more technical training. Other people need retraining to go back into the labor workforce after losing a job.

Jeremiah McAuliffe, 53, is one of those workers.

Mr. McAuliffe, of Forest Hills, has a doctorate in formative spirituality from Duquesne University and 30 years of experience as a social worker. He spent most of his career working with adolescents with mental health issues and addiction.

"I lost my job in March 2010 and was so burned out there was no way I could think of working again in that area," he said.

So he went back to school. This time Mr. McAuliffe, who has an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Denison University, went toward the less esoteric realm of science.

"I took a biology class. I did really well and really, really liked it -- like, shockingly liked it," he said.

With assistance from the community college, he kept going. He took anatomy and started technical courses to become a technician in an operating room, a job he hopes to start soon while he continues his education.

Despite all of the letters that Mr. McAuliffe can place after his name, he said the community college program gave him the most rigorous instruction.

"I have had a lot of teachers," he said. "These are some of the best. This is the most challenging academic experience of my life."

For those going through the program, Mr. Blocksidge said the school makes sure they are all on track. The staff meets weekly to coordinate any extra help students need.

Mr. McAuliffe needed extra help in math, as did Miss Akers, the biotechnology graduate now working in a lab in Blawnox.

The benefit of Miss Akers' retraining extends beyond her own job and community college degree to her family.

She had stopped going to school after high school and waited 15 years to start college. Miss Akers' 18-year-old daughter has now gone right from high school to CCAC. Miss Akers said her own experience taught her daughter the value of an education. It's a lesson she hopes her 12-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter also learn.

Miss Akers is also back at school, as a student seeking a bachelor's degree at Point Park University.

She said it took a lot of courage to complete her associate's degree while raising her children and even, for a few months, working full-time as a contractor collecting data for the U.S. Census.

In the new job, she said, she likes that the research she is helping conduct may help people live better lives.

"I like to say it was God's plan," she said.


Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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