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The Suburbanite
  • Tim Landis: New crop of students optimistic in face of job-skills challenges

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  • This is one determined bunch of “students.”
    Ages range from 22 to 73 years. Some have been laid off multiple times. Others have closed businesses. A few just wanted to update skills or find a less physically demanding line of work.
    Each is working to rebuild careers disrupted by the Great Recession — working nights and, in many cases, going to school during the days.
    In a GateHouse Media series on the “skills gap,” you’ll meet a few of them. Over the past month, we talked with economists, workforce experts, community college administrators, human resource specialists and CEOs about workers and jobs post-recession. Some of students were kind enough to share their personal stories. Contrary to what might be expected, they were uniformly optimistic about getting back in the work force.
    Still, the experts disagree on the skills gap. In the view of some, claims of too few qualified workers have become a convenient excuse for employers to slow hiring, hold down wages and shift training costs to the government.
    Human resource managers, small business owners and manufacturing executives tell a different story. The National Manufacturing Institute estimates 600,000 jobs are vacant nationwide for lack of qualified workers.
    Workforce and economists on both sides did agree the Great Recession was unlike any other. Employment is still 1.9 million jobs short of levels at the start of the recession in 2007. The recession technically ended in 2009.
    Job growth is slower and long-term unemployment remains higher compared with previous recessions. Long term is 27 weeks without a job, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
    Older workers and workers with some college or a bachelor’s degree have been hit harder than usual.
    In the Midwest, private-public, job-training partnerships are the first responders. Burlington Northern-Santa Fe railroad helped Spoon River Community College at Canton, Ill., add train engine repair to the diesel mechanics programs. Caterpillar has a partnership with Richland Community College in Decatur, Ill., to help laid-off workers learn new high-tech skills.
    The big fear? Millions of workers trapped long term in low-wage, low-skill jobs without the resources to catch up.
    Researchers at Northeastern University in Boston found job applicants reporting six or more months of unemployment were all but invisible to employers, regardless of qualifications. The researchers referred to an “unemployment cliff.”
    Peggy Foust-Seward of Canton, Ill., is one of the students. At age 55, she is studying medical insurance billing at Spoon River through the national Plus 50 Initiative. The federally funded program supports retraining for older workers.
    Foust-Seward is a certified nursing assistant at a local nursing home. It is physically difficult work. Time to plan for the next career.
    She works nights and attends classes days. Foust-Seward said she had to upgrade her computer skills for an online class.
    Page 2 of 2 - Going back to school is not easy after decades away from the classroom. Writing, reading, math and study skills are rusty.
    But Foust-Seward said the first day was the hardest.
    “Just walking in the door. You have to act. You have to say nothing’s going to stop me.”