Starting All Over

September 16, 2005
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Two machinists, both employed and seeking advancement through education, were obviously nervous — terrified, really — on the first day of classes at GrandRapidCommunity College. One said to the other, "I'm so glad you're in this class, because I thought I'd be the only guy my age in here."

Overhearing the exchange was Don Green, dean of FerrisStateUniversity in Grand Rapids, which shares the AppliedTechnologyCenter with GRCC. He was so struck by the comment that he said to the machinists, "I want you to know, I've done a fair amount of research on adult students in college, and they're typically the best students in the class."

Older students bring a strong experiential base, Green explained, which enables them to take experience and apply it to theory and principles — a powerful combination.

"Even though it is hard for older students to come back into the classroom, they have the opportunity to be very successful," he said.

While the above scenario involved two individuals who had jobs, many adult students returning to college are not employed and are in the classroom to prepare themselves for future employment. It is difficult to say that a layoff is worse for one segment over another. Whether employees are middle management, bus drivers or die makers, they've all lost their jobs. But an individual with a college degree, specialized training or certification clearly is better prepared to enter the job market than an unskilled worker — especially those accustomed to a high wage.

In 2004 there were 15 Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notifications (WARNs) issued in West Michigan, and this year there have been nine more. A WARN is a notice from the employer to the state that activates a response team from Michigan Works! Michigan Works! services include unemployment compensation, job bank services and other services for veterans and the disabled.

"Most people start with looking for a job," said Maureen Downer, program manager for Michigan Works! for Kent and Allegan counties. "If they can get a paycheck, life will be rosy and they don't need us a whole lot.

"When they're not successful, they start looking at training. This is when they might look to switch careers."

Through the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) and Trade Act, Michigan Works! can provide financial assistance for retraining. Both options require the training to lead directly to employment, such as a certificate program at Grand Rapids Community College or Davenport University. The WIA offers one year of school, up to $5,000. The Trade Act, for workers affected by NAFTA, provides two years of schools up to $6,500 annually, with more funds available if needed.

The WIA and Trade Act do highlight the importance of location. A $6,500 stipend would easily cover the full cost of a resident's associate's degree from GRCC. But there is no community college available in Allegan County. Other options, such as Davenport, University of Phoenix or even GRCC's non-resident enrollment, will mean out-of-pocket costs.

Michigan Works! also can provide on-the-job training support, whereby the state reimburses an employer for the cost of training, up to $4 an hour.

In the WIA program last year in Kent and Allegan counties, 129 workers opted for on-the-job training and 250 for classroom training. Less than half of the 814 workers enrolled sought training at all. In the Trade Act program, 467 of the 529 enrolled took classes, and 16 were in the on-the-job training program.

For workers enrolled in a tuition assistance program through an employer, the funds can be used to finish a four-year degree, Downer said. Many Bosch employees, for example, took advantage of this option.

Only in such a scenario can the funds be applied toward a four-year degree, Downer said.

"Our interest is not in sending people to school," she said. "School is a tool to getting people a job. It's nice to get an education, but it's not the be-all and end-all.

"And they're going to want and need a job. Most folks are not going to be able to stay out of the work force for four years."

As noted, there are several barriers separating unskilled displaced workers from a four-year degree, but perhaps the greatest barrier is psychological.

"When someone has been laid off, if you go to them and say, 'I've got a four-year degree for you,' that's a daunting task," Green said.

In Grand Rapids, FSU has laddered programs available for displaced and unsatisfied workers seeking entry into another field. They have the opportunity to pursue a one-year skill certificate, then an associate's degree, and later a bachelor's degree, as time and interest permit.

FSU President David Eisler has proposed this model to the Michigan Department of Labor to aid the displaced workers from Electrolux, Tower Automotive and Straits Steel & Wire in Greenville.

"We want to take a person that wants to move into a new field and give them enough education where they can have an entry-level position," Eisler said. "Train them to be a phlebotomist — that puts them in the health-care industry. Or design a credential for automotive, construction, childhood development.

"They'll discover if that is the right environment they want to work in. Then they can move on to a better job."

He has hopes of developing a similar program for Hurricane Katrina refugees.    

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