Job retraining program welcomes white-collar workers


Job retraining programs traditionally have focused on helping hourly, blue-collar workers switch to careers outside the factory. Now laid-off managers and high-wage workers are getting some attention as well.

Unemployed Californians can apply for job-retraining funds to pay for upper-level certificate programs in sectors such as entertainment and healthcare at UCLA Extension, one of the region’s largest providers of continuing education.

Cathy Sandeen, dean of UCLA Extension, announced the new program Thursday, saying it would address the changing needs of today’s workforce.

“This will help someone laid off in one field quickly be able to retool and retrain and move in another area,” she said.

The retraining programs are bolstered by $415 million in federal stimulus funds awarded to the state in April to assist displaced workers. That money nearly doubled the amount of Workforce Investment Act funds that Washington administers to California. The 1998 law created a network of offices around the country charged with helping put the unemployed back to work.

Allowing jobless professionals to retrain at institutions such as UCLA Extension is a recognition that, like manufacturing jobs before them, many white-collar positions created during the region’s economic boom won’t be returning.

The aim is to help the thousands of Los Angeles County mortgage brokers, escrow agents and others who were laid off in the housing downturn. The number of people employed in financial services in L.A. County was down 11% in November 2009 from the peak of December 2006.

“There was a meltdown locally in the subprime mortgage industry, and a lot of folks found themselves out of a job,” said David Eder, a Workforce Investment staff member. “We have seen more folks that typically wouldn’t have been customers.”

White-collar workers are increasingly vulnerable in economic downturns, said Thomas Kochan, a professor of management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

“Since the 1991 recession, you began to see more white-collar workers laid off than you had in previous recessions,” he said. “That’s gotten more widespread with each one.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, blue-collar workers would lose their jobs when production slowed and companies idled plants until the economy turned around. Now, white-collar workers are finding their jobs unstable because technology and outsourcing make it possible for employers to eliminate their positions permanently.

That has people such as Santa Monica resident Laura Peters scrambling to find work in a more stable field. She lost her job as a real estate paralegal in mid-2008 and hasn’t been able to find a job since.

“Is it difficult to find a job? No, it’s impossible,” she said.

Peters, who wants to get into healthcare management, investigated worker retraining programs at UCLA but couldn’t pay the $5,000 in fees. She now plans to take advantage of the new program.

“I’m looking to transition myself to a career that’s not cyclical,” she said. “Real estate is cyclical.”

Even without the Workforce Investment funds, interest in UCLA’s certificate programs has been growing, Sandeen said. That’s especially true for “practical” programs, she said, including fundraising, human resource management and global sustainability.

The UCLA programs, as well as other job retraining opportunities, help the workforce recover more quickly, said Terry Jay, a senior project coordinator at the Community Development Department.

“The job market is not where it was, but conventional wisdom says the [jobs are] going to come back,” he said. “We need to make sure our workforce is ready.”