Retrained workers ‘have to be where the jobs are’

Sean F. Driscoll

When Darin Berglund was laid off from Camcar in October, he took all the right steps to find a new job.

He updated his resume. He spent hours researching jobs on the Internet. He sent out applications.

“It was pretty dry,” he said. “I hadn’t gotten any response at all.”

This year, the 43-year-old Army veteran decided to take a class in computer numerical controlled machining, or CNC. The 10-week session, run by Techworks and paid for by the state, will give him a skill that’s much in demand by manufacturers in the Rock River Valley.

Again, he’s doing the right thing.

Again, he’s not sure he’ll have any luck finding a job.

“Hopefully it will be easier, knowing a different trade. CNC is everywhere, versus the fastener industry, which is leaving our borders. I would say right now that I’m hoping I can find a job after completion, but I’m hoping for the best and expecting the worst.”

Berglund faces a dilemma that’s vexing workers who want to learn new skills and the agencies pushing re-education: What jobs will be waiting on the other end of a long, potentially expensive, training class?

The manufacturing sector, long a large contributor to the area’s unemployment rate, isn’t likely to be able to reabsorb many of the jobless. The industry has lost 15,600 jobs since 1990; a labor survey of the area’s industries said 4,512 more manufacturing jobs would be lost from 2006 to 2016.

Even the excitement over $4.7 million in training funds flowing into Boone and Winnebago counties from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is tempered by the realization that, with the Rockford metro area at 13.7 percent unemployment in January, finding a new job still isn’t as simple as brushing up on a few skills.

“The little problem we have is where people are going to work,” said Michael Williams, executive director of the Rock River Training Corp., which administers many of the federally funded training programs. “We are still putting people to work, and there are manufacturing companies that are hiring for people with specific manufacturing skills. But it’s like we have a crystal ball sitting on the table and we’re asking what the growth industries will be for the next year or two. No one can give us specific information. It’s just a guess.”

Education needed

Local economic development officials have long bemoaned the Rock River Valley’s low educational attainment rates as a detriment to attracting new businesses. Only 20.8 percent of residents in Boone and Winnebago counties had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2007, compared with a 27.5 percent national average, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Janyce Fadden, president of the Rockford Area Economic Development Council, said any education a laid-off worker receives can help attract businesses to the area, even if it’s not a degree program. 

“Certainly if a manufacturer that has CNC needs is looking, we want to know how many workers we think we have in that area,” she said. “We use modeling tools through census data and other estimates for the labor area. We produce that information so we can assure companies that our workers have the skills they need.”

Still, Fadden acknowledged the hard sell to convince someone who’s out of work to re-educate him- or herself for a job that may not exist.

“I do think it’s a difficult decision for a laid-off worker, someone who’s out of the work force right now, to decide ‘What am I going to do? Do I take this risk and wonder if the jobs are coming? Do I stay and look at what I have?’ When an employer that has had to lay off starts calling workers back, it’s going to look for people who are proven to be productive, industrious workers. If workers can show that they used their time away from work to get education, I would see that as a benefit. I think that’s how people are going to begin to differentiate themselves when work begins again.”

Williams has talked to many people who have been laid off and just want to wait for the same job to appear at another company.

But that’s an unlikely scenario.

“They need to assess whether they’re in a field that’s no longer in high demand, and if so, they need to learn a new trade,” he said. “This is an opportunity for them to do that, but we have people in denial about the reality of their jobs. They want to hang on and find another job locally doing another job locally doing exactly what it was they were doing for decades.”

Flight coming?

If many of the 22,386 people in Boone and Winnebago counties out of work in January go through a training program, be it for a few weeks or several years, they will be better prepared to find a new job, Williams said.

If they can’t, however, they may pack up their new skills and go where the work is.

“In the health field, especially nursing, a year ago everyone around the country was saying thousands of jobs are going to be available in health care. We are paying locally hundreds of thousands of dollars to train individuals to go into nursing fields,” Williams said. “The reality has set in that, because of the recession, the hospitals are not hiring as many nurses as they were a year ago. That doesn’t mean there are no nursing jobs in other parts of the country. Are those opportunities here in Rockford, or is that opportunity in Texas or Indiana or California?

“We lose a portion of our work force because the survival instinct kicks in.”

If a significant number of trained workers leave the Rock River Valley, that can continue to hurt economic development, Williams said. Not only could plants have trouble filling positions when the economy rebounds, but potential new employers would see a dearth of qualified employees for their businesses.

For Berglund, who has six weeks to go in his 10-week CNC training class, moving is a distinct possibility. He’d prefer not to relocate his wife and two daughters, who are in the sixth and eighth grades, but he won’t rule it out.

“When it comes down to survival, we’ll do what needs to be done,” he said. “If we have to move, then yeah, if there’s no other way around it. If there’s nothing within 50 miles or 100 miles, then you’ve gotta move. You’ve got to be where the jobs are.”

Sean F. Driscoll can be reached at (815) 987-1346