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Formula for turning jobless into employed remains elusive

Five years after she entered Michigan's No Worker Left Behind retraining program, Macomb County resident Lori Wingert is still grateful.

She lost her job teaching preschool children of Ford Motor Co. employees when the automaker shut its child development center. She was among the first participants in 2007 in the program, which paid for Wingert’s associate degree in accounting at Macomb Community College.

Wingert now works as a business coordinator for the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts, a job she is certain would have been out of reach without her degree.

“I think for me it was the best. I love my job. I wouldn't be in this position without it,” said Wingert, 53.

“If I hadn't gone back to school, I don't know what would have happened.”

Studies find mixed results from retraining

But two years after the demise of No Worker Left Behind, debate continues over what works and what doesn't in employment retraining. For every success story like Wingert, there seems to be one of a frustrated worker, retrained, with no job.

A 2009 state study of the program found that 48 percent of unemployed and underemployed workers who had completed training found jobs. But that left 52 percent still looking. The study did not provide detailed information on the type of jobs workers found or what they were being paid. 

In 2010, the Detroit News reported that 16,100, or 53 percent, of the people who completed schooling found work, while more than 14,600 dropped out and another 14,500 completed their training but were jobless. At the time, Gov. Jennifer Granholm said 75 percent of participants “either obtained or retained jobs,” while of the participants who had been unemployed or underemployed, 59 percent found new work.

A legislative report for fiscal 2011 found that 50 percent of  28,107 individuals enrolled in the program were employed within one year of training at an average pay of about $15 an hour. Overall, some 150,000 individuals took part in the program.

The $500 million program was unveiled in August 2007, paying up to $10,000 in tuition to laid-off and underemployed workers to study high-demand fields. It was designed to give displaced workers a chance to transition from the assembly line to fields including information technology and health care.

It was phased out in 2010 because of a cut in federal workforce money that paid for a large part of the program.

Mike Pohnl, strategic opportunities director for the state's Workforce Development Agency, which oversees training and placement programs, said the state wants employers to drive the job training network.

“We are trying to build a demand-driven system,” Pohnl said. “Our goal is that when we design training activities that we are looking for the skills that the industry in the region needs.”

Gov. Rick Snyder asserts that jobs programs must better connect job seekers with employers and help workers identify skills and education they need to find jobs or move into more rewarding employment.

Snyder charts different course

In December 2011, Snyder announced the Pure Michigan Talent Connect web site to further that aim. It provides tools to allow workers to identify the cost of career training for specific fields and potential lifelong earnings in that field.

He has been critical of the JET (Jobs Education and Training) program, calling it “a failure,” saying that its 27 percent job placement record is not good enough.

“We tended to give people skills, but we didn’t do enough effort to get them connected with employers,” he said in an interview.

State officials have estimated that more than 70,000 jobs stand vacant in Michigan because employers can't find qualified workers to fill them. They include positions in nursing, software programming and accounting.

Part of the problem is education. According to a 2010 report,  about 35.6 percent of Michigan residents ages 25 to 64 had at least a two-year degree in 2008, trailing the national average of 37.9 percent.

The number of jobs that require an associate's, bachelor's or graduate degree is expected to rise by 5.3 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to a report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Those that require just a high school diploma are expected to increase by 1.4 percent.

A 2008 federal study of the Workforce Investment Act, a major source of funding for No Worker Left Behind, questioned the payoff of job retraining.

“Estimates of effects on earnings and employment three to four years after program entry – more than 18 months after program exit for most participants – show little evidence that training produces substantial benefits,” it stated.

Kenneth Troske, a University of Kentucky economics professor and one of the study's authors, said it is problematic for government to decide what fields will be promising for jobs growth.

“If you ask me what jobs five years from now are going to be hot, I'm not a good predictor of that and I have a lot of knowledge of labor market trends. We have government workers making that choice.”

Troske said it can be especially difficult for a worker employed for years in a particular field to find an appropriate match in another field.

“It's a really hard thing to do and it takes time. Let's say we are talking about someone who is an an automaker and we are training them to be a welder. He may not be a very good welder. And there may not be welding jobs around.”

He noted that health care is considered a field with promising job prospects.

“Are you going to take an auto worker and train him to be an X-ray technician or a nurse? Those are much different jobs requiring much skills.”

But of greater concern to Troske is the flattening growth curve in percentage of  U.S. college graduates.

Thirty years ago, the United States led the world in the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with the equivalent of at least a two-year degree. As of 2009, the U.S. trailed 14 other developed countries, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“We are now at a point in economic development where a typical worker needs a college degree in order to be successful. The lack of  growth in skilled workers is the fundamental issue holding us back,”  Troske said.

Ted Roelofs worked for the Grand Rapids Press for 30 years, where he covered everything from politics to social services to military affairs. He has earned numerous awards, including for work in Albania during the 1999 Kosovo refugee crisis.

Other reports on No Worker Left Behind

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