Michigan: Land Of Retraining, But Few Jobs

Faced with the worst unemployment rate in the country, leaders in Michigan launched an ambitious initiative to retrain more than 100,000 workers. The No Worker Left Behind program has had success getting laid-off auto workers and others into programs where they learn new skills. But getting those workers into new jobs has proven much more challenging, in part because it's incredibly hard to predict where the jobs of the future will be in a state where jobs of any kind are in such short supply.

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A: Detroit. And now, a broader look. Michigan has the worst unemployment in the country so it's using a program called No Worker Left Behind to retrain and reinvent its workforce. So far, more than 120,000 people have signed up. But many workers with certificates of completion are still looking for jobs.

NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH: For Karen Alexander(ph), the last 18 months have been full of anxiety and frustration. She's missed mortgage payments, had to get food aid, and even had her utilities shut off for a few very cold days.

It all started when she was laid off from her job at an auto supplier where she'd worked for 32 years.

: And it just kept going downhill, downhill, downhill, until January of this year when I actually got the approval for school. And then, you know, the sun started to shine again.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEITH: The 52-year-old single mom just completed training to become a certified nursing assistant.

: I'm an example. I don't care what age you are. You know, I've got it in me still. I'm going to go for it.

KEITH: Alexander is looking for work now at hospitals and nursing facilities near her home in Warren, Michigan. These jobs are entry-level positions that pay less than half of what she made in the auto industry. And as she scans through a job search website, the results are underwhelming.

: You know, you can't give up. If you give up, then, you know, there was no sense in going through all this. I'm doing this for a reason. I set a goal that by the end of June, I would have a job.

KEITH: One man who certainly has to hope she's right is Andy Levin, Michigan's chief workforce officer. He says the No Worker Left Behind Program emphasizes longer term training in fields deemed in-demand.

: If you're willing to become any number of jobs in advanced manufacturing, health care, renewable energy production, you know, on and on, we will give you up to $10,000 worth of free training at any Michigan community college, university or other approved training program.

KEITH: But figuring out which fields truly are in demand has proven an inexact science.

: It's a roll of the dice. But, you know, it's the best roll that you have right now.

KEITH: John Bierbusse is the executive director of Macomb-St. Clair Michigan Works! in suburban Detroit.

: We do get information on what they expect to happen and we try to align our training to those speculations, but it's speculation.

KEITH: Even sure things sometimes aren't. Last year, an engineering staffing firm called Tallisend(ph) saw that there was demand for workers in the piping design field. So the company teamed up with the county and the local community college to create a targeted program. The plan: train out-of-work automotive designers for jobs mostly in the oil and gas industry.

Forty-nine people finished training before Bierbusse says it became clear that jobs haven't materialized.

: The credit crunch kind of caught up with them, too. Some of their expansions and things like that were put on hold because these companies could not get loans.

KEITH: Gino Tattalini(ph) was one of the 49. He thought he'd found the perfect new career when he signed up for the pipeline design program.

: It sounded really good to me and with the new industry, and I thought I'd give it a try.

KEITH: Tattalini was so excited about it, he even recruited some of his former colleagues.

: I thought it would be a good move. A year later, no such leads. No such leads as far as employment, no formal interviews since then.

KEITH: So far, just nine of his classmates have gotten jobs in piping design. Several others are back in the auto industry. The rest, more than half, like Gino, are still looking.

A state report estimates that only about 40 percent of laid-off workers who went through No Worker Left Behind training found jobs related to their field of study.

: I think our numbers on that are great.

KEITH: The state's Andy Levin says it's all about context. He points out this is the worst job market in generations.

: There definitely are people who go and train to be something very specific and then they are not able to get a job, you know, in that way. But I think in general, a lot of people are sort of moving into new, whole new careers through this.

KEITH: He stands by the idea that someone who has gotten training will ultimately be better off. Others involved in worker retraining say they are careful not to overpromise.

Jim Jacobs is president of Macomb College, a large community college in the Detroit suburbs.

: I mean, there's no illusions that somehow this program will uncover this hidden stream of jobs that exists somewhere in Michigan that no one has ever found before.

KEITH: John Warner(ph) stands out in the Macomb College library. At 60 years old, he has a lot more gray hair than most of the other students. He's in the middle of a two-year program in information technology.

: I'm hoping for the best with getting through school and the economy picking up some and being able to find another job to get into that'll pay a, you know, fairly decent salary.

KEITH: Warner needs this to work out.

: It's kind of a tough thing, I think, to figure out here in Michigan exactly what's going to fly and what isn't.

KEITH: He can only hope that the in-demand field he's training for will be in demand when he's done with school.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

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