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Does retraining work?

Joe Napsha
| Sunday, March 12, 2006

Frank Shaffer, of Carnegie, got caught in the new technology.

In 2002, Shaffer, 53, lost his job as a mechanical designer when his company cut all but two workers. The Internet had made it easier to replace local draftsmen by shipping drawings overseas.

"They can pay a few dollars an hour," Shaffer said, "and not pay benefits."

Shaffer then joined about 30 million workers who benefited from $30.6 billion in federally funded training programs between October 2001 and October 2002, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

But it's a matter of debate whether those programs really help.

Shaffer was retrained in tooling and machining at New Century Careers, a nonprofit center on Pittsburgh's South Side.

"I wanted to find something closely related to my field," Shaffer said

Shaffer is a success story. He now works as a salesman for Chick Workholding Solutions Inc., of Marshall, which produces machine parts.

But critics contend the use of government money to provide employment services is misguided.

"The federal government has proven to be inept in that area," said David Muhlhausen, a senior policy analyst for The Heritage Foundation of Washington, D.C. "They largely have been a complete failure in raising the wages of these people. Essentially, it's a bridge to nowhere. Especially for adult men, its been a miserable failure."

Muhlhausen said companies don't need the government's help to train workers.

"People should be resilient enough to plan their own careers," he said.

Muhlhausen's view is not universal.

"From our perspective on the front lines, a lot of the companies we work with truly can't do it on their own. The technology is changing so rapidly and the costs for training are getting steeper," said Barry Maciak, president of New Century Careers, which uses government funds and works with about 150 employers.

New Century has trained more than 700 entry-level welders and machinists in the past six years, plus thousands of workers who need to advance their skills, he said.

Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group of Pittsburgh, agrees.

Government-funded job training and retraining is a necessity, especially in a changing economy, Hoffman said.

Robin Tonya Durbiano, 40, of Hempfield, Westmoreland County, lost her job as a US Airways flight attendant in June 2003. Working though PA CareerLink in Youngwood, Durbiano decided on a career in health care.

She completed a state-funded, two-year training program at the Western School of Health and Business in Monroeville in September. Durbiano then landed a job as a registered radiographer at Excela Westmoreland Hospital in Greensburg.

"I like the job. I needed to find a good career," Durbiano said.

Durbiano's starting wage of $13 an hour put her at almost the same income as her flight attendant's job.

"She survived the massive layoffs (at US Airways) by setting her goals and desires and putting everything she had into obtaining her dream," said John Chedister, an employment specialist at PA CareerLink who worked with Durbiano.

Government-funded training gave John Camardese, 46, of Crescent, the education he needed to escape chipping excess iron from moulds at a Neville Island foundry.

"The little bit of money you have, you can't spend it on retraining programs," Camardese said.

Twenty years ago, Camardese opted for training as an electrician through programs sponsored by community colleges in Allegheny and Beaver counties. He then landed a machinist's job at US Airways.

"Everything looked good till 9/11," Camardese said.

While he still works for the airline, he and a partner are building townhouses in Moon in order to secure their futures.

"The No. 1 need companies have indicated to us in the last four to five years is workforce training and workforce development," said John Skiavo, president of Economic Growth Connection of Westmoreland County.

Economic Growth Connection has worked with Westmoreland County Community College and Penn State's New Kensington Campus, along with manufacturing companies, to provide training for manufacturing jobs -- particularly jobs that require skills such as operating computerized equipment, Skiavo said.

Last year, 40 companies were involved in training 334 prospective workers in 36 classes, Skiavo said.

It's important for job-seekers to be able to compete for good jobs.

In Western Pennsylvania, jobs can be found in manufacturing, health care, construction services and hospitality and tourism, said William Thompson, director of the Workforce Investment Board of Westmoreland-Fayette Inc.

"We are trying to target our resources toward employers in those industries, then we are directing them (workers) to opportunities that are available in 'high priority occupations' within those industries," Thompson said.

The Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association is concerned about how the state spends its job-training funds, which go to dozens of programs spread across several state-level departments, said David Taylor, the association's spokesman.

"The effectiveness of that is in question. You need to reconnect the training to actual Pennsylvanians in actual jobs. There is a more pressing need to upgrade the training of the existing workforce so that they have the cutting-edge skills and are keeping up with the technology," Taylor said.

The state should provide businesses with tax credits for specialized training.

"It's the maximum degree of connectiveness that the taxpayers can pay for .... actually helping a worker in an actual job," Taylor said.

Additional Information:


Job training by the numbers

  • $30.6 billion spent by the U.S. government on employment and training efforts in fiscal year 2002.

  • 30 million people served between Oct. 1, 2001, and Sept. 30, 2002.

  • 44 federal programs focus on helping workers find jobs or job training.

  • 13 programs required recipients to be economically disadvantaged.

  • 9 different federal agencies administered the programs.

    Source: Government Accountability Office's April 2003 report on Multiple Employment and Training Programs

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