Hard Times: Tuition-free courses give lifeline to displaced workers
Erica Miller -- "I am looking forward with an intensity that I haven't had in a very long time ... This is our change in life, our next step."
Share with others:
A promotion cost Erica Miller her job.
Starting six years ago behind a cash register at Burlington Coat Factory, she had moved up to customer service supervisor and again to manager of the youth department at the chain's Monroeville store. She held that position fewer than three months before a tearful boss, reading from a form letter, told her it had been eliminated.
That was Jan. 6.
"Nobody really quite knew what to say," said Ms. Miller, 28, of Arlington. "You sign the papers in front of you and go home and wait for your severance check."
Her first thought was of her upcoming wedding to Ben Kelly, which already had been scaled back to accommodate the couple's tight budget.
"To be back to square one, it was, like, what do I have to offer our relationship?" Ms. Miller said last week, seated near her fiance in his Wilkinsburg apartment. "I felt like I was letting people down."
But two months after losing her job, she sports stark white scrubs and sneakers and emerges from a classroom at Community College of Allegheny County where she and nine other students, most of them laid-off workers, are "reinventing themselves" by becoming nurses aides.
Clutching a thermos, with a name tag slung around her neck, Ms. Miller is smiling. She has aced her first test. She has come a long way, she said, from those first trying days of unemployment, when her life took what felt like a U-turn for the worst.
Ms. Miller's six-year career at Burlington had given her an identity. Now suddenly, she had no health insurance. She was staring at lingering student loans from an unfinished stint at Thiel College in Greenville, Mercer County. And she was planning to marry in October.
Feeling exiled from the battered retail sector, Ms. Miller opted to join at least 1,072 Pennsylvanians and countless other people nationwide who are taking tuition-free courses at community colleges in pursuit of professions that will withstand economic turbulence.
Unemployment in Pennsylvania jumped to 7.5 percent in February, behind the national jobless rate of 8.1 percent.
But Ms. Miller's story is one of hope, as her pink slip opened doors to a career path she might not have taken otherwise. She expects to be finished with the college courses she began last week and to be looking for jobs in medical centers and nursing homes by May.
"I am looking forward with an intensity that I haven't had in a very long time ... This is our change in life, our next step," she said of herself and her classmates, who include a former steelworker, a laid-off Comcast employee, and a handful of others displaced from retail.
In each other, they've found solidarity. During lunch breaks from their 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. courses at CCAC's Downtown campus, they chat in the student lounge about their families but avoid talk of joblessness.
"A lot of us are trying to leave that behind," Ms. Miller said. "That's passed."
Employment nationwide hit a precipitous slide in September -- the same month Ms. Miller and Mr. Kelly became engaged -- when 321,000 people lost their jobs. The September figures were the highest since those following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and have continued to grow.
Mr. Kelly, 31, a research coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh, would have proposed sooner. But he lost a different medical research job in July, while he was shopping for diamond rings.
"I was like, how am I going to ask a woman to spend the rest of her life with me when I can't even provide for her?" Mr. Kelly said. So he waited until he had snagged a new job, opting this time for heirlooms -- his great aunt's ring for the engagement, her great-grandmother's for the wedding band.
They've decided to wed in Oil City, Venango County, where Ms. Miller has relatives and costs are lower. . They've gone without professional planners, doing the heavy lifting themselves and searching for bargains even in the tiniest details of their wedding.
But with no income and just two weeks of severance pay, Ms. Miller wondered if she and her fiance would have to tighten their budget yet again. She worried more that she'd let Mr. Kelly down. Of course, he said, she hadn't.
They're the kind of partners who play games side by side at their computers, who finish each other's sentences and tell each other everything. They won't be felled by financial woes.
"Love is possible in a recession," Ms. Miller said.
A few weeks after her layoff, a television news report caught Ms. Miller's attention.
CCAC was offering free tuition at its campuses to unemployed county residents who wanted to retrain and enter the workforce, as it had done a generation earlier when steelworkers dealt with shuttered mills. Among the programs offered was certified nurses aide training, which appealed to Ms. Miller.
Nurses aides around the region earn $10 to $13 an hour, she said -- about what she had been paid at Burlington. But to her, health care professions seemed more resilient in a downturn than retail.
Ms. Miller had cared for her father during his two-year battle with cancer, helping hospice nurses who tended to him before his death in June. Ms. Miller had vowed to her father that someday she'd return to school.
Raised in Arlington, Ms. Miller was among the top 10 students in her class when she graduated in 1999 from Langley High School. She went on to study English at Thiel, but left without graduating in 2002. "I wasn't ready for college," she said.
Losing her job gave her the push she needed to go back.
CCAC was flooded with 600 inquiries when it announced its program for laid-off workers. More than 100 are taking fast-track courses in high-demand fields, such as information technology and basic electronics.
"The economy is definitely on everyone's mind right now," CCAC spokesman David Hoovler said. "Pittsburgh is doing better than other places, but there's still a need for this. A lot of people are getting laid off."
In her program, Ms. Miller is surrounded by other people who have worked for much of their lives in jobs that suddenly no longer exist, forcing them to start again from scratch.
"A lot of the students have worked in retail, worked at Comcast, worked in cell phone stores and were just dislocated," said Ms. Miller's instructor, Geri O'Toole. "They've been in the workforce, they have already managed certain issues in their lives that some of the other students haven't."
One week into her classes, Ms. Miller spends her nights studying. She and Mr. Kelly stayed up late Tuesday while he read from her papers, grilling her before a test. On Wednesday, her class learned how to bathe a patient. Friday was CPR training.
She suffers from an occasional bout of self-doubt and worries if she'll be able to handle the emotional aspects of her new career, but "it's a huge difference from where I was when I got laid off," she said. "There's no fear anymore."
While no one can be sure when the economy will improve for everyone, Ms. Miller said she feels it has done so for her.
"The truth is, no matter how bad the financial times are, our lives are what we make of them."
First Published March 22, 2009 12:00 am