Autoworker Retraining Program In High Demand

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Read More About Remaking Michigan

Retraining autoworkers is a key part of President Obama's plan to help communities that are hurt by the auto industry's restructuring.

States such as Michigan already have programs to retrain workers.

Sarah Tennant, with the Michigan Works office in Roseville, about 20 miles northeast of Detroit, leads a seminar on how laid-off workers can qualify for a retraining program called "No Worker Left Behind."

Demand for this seminar is "astronomical," she says.

"We're actually booked out several months for this seminar, even though we do it twice a day," Tennant says. "When we first started, you know, we could get someone in a couple weeks; now it's taking a couple months to get into the seminar."

And demand is only going to go up as General Motors, Chrysler and all their suppliers continue the tough restructuring that President Obama has demanded.

The president's new director of auto recovery, Ed Montgomery, says his job is to help the people affected.

Tennant says her office can use some of that assistance: "Right now, we need more people and a bigger building. Our building is just busting at the seams right now," she says.

Even with the strains on the system, about 61,000 people have gotten retraining assistance in Michigan. They get up to $10,000 in tuition money.

At Macomb County Community College's student center, Thomas Marciano, 56, is surrounded by people less than half his age.

Marciano is taking classes here to become an accountant. He spent 20 years working for a parts supplier. But when his plant closed in 2007, Marciano says he knew it was time to move on.

"We couldn't transfer to another plant," he says. "I don't think you could be hired in the other plants — the Big Three — because they had similar situations. And what I heard, [it's] very difficult to get in."

So Marciano decided it was time to go back to school. And he has no complaints about how the system has worked for him.

But he also got a better deal than some workers might find today, because he gets added benefits through the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act. The act gives workers money for lost wages and a tax credit for health care, in addition to tuition assistance.

But only workers whose jobs have gone overseas can get that money.

Kristin Dziczek, with the Center for Automotive Research, says international trade isn't to blame for what's happening today.

"It's an economic reason for job loss right now, so very few companies are able to qualify under the laws as they're written," she says.

Dziczek says those laws should be rewritten so workers in today's crisis can get better help.

But even if the law is changed, there's another major problem: No matter what training you have, there aren't enough jobs right now.

Until a few weeks ago, Dawan Gibson worked in accounting. But Gibson has now been laid off as well. So she says it's not just about different jobs, it's about more jobs.

"There needs to be some kind of stimulus within the economy as a whole in order to get people spending money," Gibson says. "And putting money back into the economy is going to create more jobs."

The White House estimates that the current stimulus plan will create about 115,000 jobs in Michigan alone. But right now, more than 500,000 people in Michigan are on unemployment.

Dustin Dwyer reports for Michigan Radio.

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