Workers head back to school to retool for the new economy

College has seen a 57-percent increase in its worker retraining program

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‘I worked as a respiratory therapist for nearly 18 years, Janis Crane said. She was laid off last March from Dayton General Hospital.

"I was devastated," she said. "I loved my patients. I wanted to get into the medical field to begin with, because I wanted to make people feel better."

So she turned adversity into something positive by taking classes at Walla Walla Community College. Like Crane, many other students are working on retraining.

"The worker retraining program has seen a 57-percent increase," said Clint Gabbard, vice president of student services at WWCC.

"We have 408 individuals this fall (2009) versus 260 last year," he said. "Forty percent of those folks were employed for three years or more at a job and are now unemployed. This includes displaced homemakers."

Gabbard said vulnerable workers are those needing more skills or those who are in dying occupations. He said across the state, worker retraining is up 77 percent.

But are there jobs available if you go to the time and expense of going back to school?

Gabbard said there are jobs that are in high demand in the energy systems, health care and diesel and auto fields.

Gabbard said since people are keeping their cars longer, they will need more maintenance. That's an example of the recession creating some job opportunities. WWCC also has the capacity to train students on hybrid technology, which may have huge future demand.

In spite of the current economic conditions, the whole idea of worker retraining is nothing new for Walla Walla Community College and it didn't start with the recent recession, Jim Peterson, vice president of administrative services, said.

"We've been seeing it for the last 10 years, our local economy has been in a huge transition," he said. "We did a lot of food processing then -- asparagus, peas, corn -- and there's none of those big plants left now. And Louisiana Pacific, the timber and lumber industry, there's just a remnant of that specialized market. Our local economy has been churning for a long time.

"But I've learned it's a constant churning in our economy. It's no longer get out of school, go to work for 20 years at the mill and retire. It's been going on a long time, but it is more acute now, with structural changes in our economy and more job losses. More people understand the need for training and retraining."

The worker must first recover from the job loss, then be aware of his/her skills and where abilities need to be updated.

"We're getting better at recognizing students' skills and gaps in skills, then we work to fill in the gaps," Peterson said. "For employment opportunities, workers have to be nimble and get from where they are to where they want to be."

Officials at the college assist students in picking out occupations in growing fields.

Peterson said, "Health care and related occupations are growing the fastest ... The state of Washington is currently importing workers who have skills needed for jobs. Those that don't have skills are limited in employment. We're working to plug the leaks in the pipeline from middle school to college."

Peterson said local opportunities may be in the fields of health care, enology and viticulture, renewable energy and energy systems, sustainability, stream restoration and energy resource conservation.

Opportunities may exist, but they are in a very different job market than the one that existed 20 years ago.

Mark Varadian, Washington State Employment Security Department communications manager, said, "What we're seeing in this particular recession is a lot of folks who are laid off had worked at a job for 20 or 30 years, and now those jobs are gone. The challenge is how to move to a different job with the skill set you have. At the WorkSource offices, folks there are trained to do an assessment, look at the job skills and match with an in-demand job."

Varadian said a neutral perspective from another person is what really helps. Often those who have worked at a job for several decades identify themselves with their job.

"People are resistant to change. After 20-some years ... it's hard to let go. It takes that external assessment. They can deconstruct your job skills and skill set and match with a growing job area."

After the assessment, then decisions are made to update the existing skills, which often takes the worker back to school for retraining in programs such as those WWCC. But college is always a challenge.

"It's a balancing act, with work, family and classes. In periods of economic struggle people work to increase their skill level," Gabbard said.

Crane said the process has been difficult, and she still has a way to go in school.

"Not including the pre-recs, nursing is a two year program."

But, her experiences at school have been very good.

"Here everybody's been wonderful. If I need specific information they help me. They are just awesome."

But after 18 years at a job, going back to school is a whole new ballgame.

"I was nervous, not sure what to expect," she said.

But she's comfortable as "a non traditional student," she said.

"There are others my age and older, too. I know things will turn around. At first I cried for days. But I trust my gut instinct. I know everything is going to be fine."

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