Retraining programs get unemployment bump

Courtney Myrick, 27, trained to be a massage therapist several years ago but found that customer service jobs paid the bills. After 10 years in the industry, however, jobs became scarce and less stable. 

After a layoff in June, Myrick enrolled in BankWorks, a free program administered by Jewish Vocational Service of Los Angeles (JVS), where she learned about banking regulations, balancing cash flow and assessing customer needs.

“I love it; I love the company benefits,” said Myrick, who now works as a bank teller for Wells Fargo.

Myrick finished the six-week program on Nov. 16 and was hired a week later through a job fair coordinated by JVS. 

“[You] have to give a lot of commitment,” Myrick said about BankWorks. “It’s like a job, just you’re not getting paid for it.”

Hundreds like her have been flooding certificate programs at JVS, Santa Monica College (SMC) and other local institutions. Enrolling in two- to six-month courses that teach a variety of specific skills, these adults — who range in age from their late 20s to their early 60s — all share the same motivation: desperation. 

“We’ve been seeing the return of adults to education for three years now,” said Vicki Rothman, a faculty member at SMC who also heads its career services department. “A good 80 percent of them were already employed, had B.A.’s and had lost jobs. At first, people tried to get back into their own market, but the job market went so down in Los Angeles they figured if they came to community college and did a short program and retraining, it would get them back to the market.”

SMC has a number of short-term programs to get people back in the workforce, including recycling and resource management, photovoltaic solar paneling and digital media, Rothman said. Ironically, people thought the medical industry was hiring and trained to become nurses, but California now has a glut, “and many nurses are not being hired and are leaving the state,” she said.

Rothman said she also advises both women and men to look into opening a family day-care center, which can provide a nice income. She has guided many recently unemployed to SMC’s early childhood education program, which prepares them to be preschool teachers as well as open their own day-care centers.

Representatives for the certificate programs say job prospects for recent graduates have been good so far. Solar paneling and digital media grads are getting hired, and Rothman noted a slight upswing in employment in Los Angeles County.

“Originally, when the employment market was good, we’d get adults who just wanted to finish their bachelor’s to get ahead, at night. But the minute people started losing jobs, people were coming in droves. It made a huge impact on managers, office workers, lawyers; people are willing to make such changes now,” she said.

At JVS, the focus has shifted from helping people with career happiness and advancement to people looking for a job, said Melissa Jarvis-Prieto, a JVS spokeswoman. She said they have especially seen an influx of people in their 30s to 50s.

At JVS, the strategy is to train people for similar industries. They have directed people who had worked in the mortgage industry to their BankWorks program, and people who were laid off from construction jobs into a green construction program, Jarvis-Prieto said. 

In response to the increasing need, JVS partnered with local community colleges to offer programs in cyber-security and green construction, and changed their BankWorks program from an eight-week course to six weeks. They have also focused attention on their MatureAbility program, which provides counseling and skills-building to job seekers 50 years old and older, Jarvis-Prieto said. 

Lisa Meadows, BankWorks’ program manager, said that the older age of the students makes the classes more successful. “That maturity is being shared in the classroom,” she said.

Many students avoid retraining until all options run out — unemployment, job contacts and savings, Meadows said. Recently, a student with a master’s degree from USC and a successful career in the entertainment industry enrolled in the program after being unemployed for a year and half. Now he works as a personal banker at Chase. 

By and large, laid-off adults have not been choosing to go back to graduate schools, especially not Jewish ones, according to educators interviewed for this article. Graduate school faculty and administrators at American Jewish University (AJU) and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) noted applicants’ concerns about covering tuition costs and taking on more debt, leading many to defer graduate school for another time.

Nina Lieberman, dean of AJU’s nonprofit management program, an MBA program for working executives, said that many applicants are cautious about getting a degree because of their concerns about job insecurity. “They don’t want to take on more debt” in this economy, she said. 

At HUC-JIR, the aggregate age of enrolling graduate students has actually been younger in recent years — as opposed to the older students in certificate programs — due to fears from undergraduates that rabbinic and cantorial jobs wouldn’t be available, according to Deborah Abelson, director of admissions and recruitment. Abelson said those jobs do exist, but students were so wary that they often opted to stay in graduate school to avoid job searching in a dismal environment. 

Abelson said that interest in rabbinic and cantorial study is less affected by the recession, because it has always been more of a personal calling than an economic decision. 

“With rabbinical school, when they’re drawn to it, they’re drawn to it,” she said.