County moves fast to help retrain laid-off employees

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Albert Wilson was the only person who was laid off when the small company where he worked for four years in Clairton had to downsize in the first week of January.

A machinist who learned his trade while on the job at Evans Machining Service, Mr. Wilson, 50, said he showed up one day "and they told me the job is over."

Kim McMullen was just getting back from maternity leave when she got her pink slip in November. The Pittsburgh company where she'd worked for 10 years laid her off along with four others in its administrative services division.

"It was very demoralizing when it happened," said Mrs. McMullen, 38, of Monroeville. "I have to start all over again, and I don't know how long it's going to take."

For Erica Lynn Miller, her engagement was the first thing that crossed her mind when Burlington Coat Factory eliminated her department manager position in January. Two other managers at the giant retailer's Monroeville store were also laid off.

"I'm getting married in October," she thought. "What am I going to do? What have I done with the last six years of my life?"

In the midst of an economic downturn with no end in sight, such stories are increasingly common here and nationwide.

For those affected, the worry is: "How long until I get another job, and will I make as much as I did before?"

To address such anxieties, Allegheny County recently began a program to help retrain laid-off workers.

"This is a very targeted approach to getting people jobs in local industry, which for years has told us that there are jobs for people with specific skills in the region," said Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato.

The program offers free tuition and fees at Community College of Allegheny County for five programs identified as high-priority fields where people can get back into the work force quickly. To be eligible, participants must live in Allegheny County, have a letter from their employers stating they were laid off and apply for financial aid.

Ms. Miller, 27, who started out as a cashier at the Downtown Burlington Coat Factory six years ago, was one of more than 400 who inundated community college officials with inquiries when the free tuition program was announced last month.

"I was sitting at home upset and terrified about what to do next when I heard about the program. My thought at the time was that I needed retraining in a stable field, something in health care," she said.

She enrolled in the certified nurse's aide training program at the CCAC campus Downtown. She will start classes in mid-March and expects to be finished with the course and looking for jobs in medical centers and nursing homes by early May.

Notwithstanding the economy, there are still job opportunities in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, Mr. Onorato said, because of companies like Westinghouse, U.S. Steel, Allegheny Ludlum, Dick's Sporting Goods, UPMC, American Eagle and a wide range of small manufacturing companies that seem to be expanding.

"We're doing well, so far, but we're not immune to what's happening in the global economy," he said. "Our hope is that a free tuition program will boost these companies by offering them a pool of skilled labor."

That is why the program identified specific fields, which also include information technology support, taught at the Boyce campus; basic electronics at the North campus; phlebotomy at the South campus; and emergency medical technician at the Allegheny campus.

The community college will foot the cost of tuition and fees -- up to 36 credits taken within two years of a job loss -- that aren't covered by other aid.

In addition to the free tuition program, the county Department of Human Services has launched a "Help in Hard Times" Web site,, which catalogs all assistance programs through state, county and city agencies.

With its relatively low unemployment rate -- 5.9 percent, well below the national average of 7.6 percent -- and a modest housing slump, Allegheny County seems to be doing somewhat better than other regions of similar size, according to economy watchers.

That is mostly because of the strength of the "recession resistant" education and health services sectors, which account for nearly 20 percent of the region's employment, said Jim Futrell, vice president of market research and analysis for the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, an affiliate of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

Even so, county officials fear the worst of the economic slide has yet to hit the region. Although major regional employers may not be drastically slashing jobs yet, many mom-and-pop shops and smaller companies are, they said.

"We see a role for government to develop job-retraining and placement programs that can either keep people in their jobs or move them into new ones in a relatively short period," said Dennis Davin, director of the county's Department of Economic Development.

That is what the county did 30 years ago after the steel industry collapsed, and more recently after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when the regional economy suffered through massive layoffs by big employers like US Airways, he said.

But given the size of a global economic downturn, how much can county government do?

When a company plans to lay off more than 50 people, it must file notice with the state, "which lets us know they are in financial trouble. Our first action is to meet with the company and see whether there is assistance we can give them through loans and other programs," Mr. Davin said.

Often, nothing can be done and the jobs are lost.

But sometimes, the county can take workers from a struggling company, retrain them and place them in jobs with traditionally stable regional employers, he said.

Karamagi Rujumba can be reached at or 412-263-1719.


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