Dislocated Workers Seek a New Path

photo by Eric Tadsen

Bettsey Barhorst, president of Madison College, sees grown-up people pull into the college parking lot from her office, and as they approach the building with people half their age, they do so with some degree of apprehension. Being an adult and going back to school can be very intimidating, especially for a dislocated worker.

Not far away at Madison College's new arm, the Center for Adult Learning, they approach the facility with other dislocated workers, people who also have felt the sting of the recession. "The deal here is that you walk in the door and people are there to help you," Barhorst said. "They don't let you leave unless you are set."

The Center was established with the help of a three-year, $750,000 post-secondary education grant. According to the Department of Education, the money will prepare adults for high-growth and high-demand occupations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these include registered nurses, home health aides, medical assistants, computer software engineers, and network systems and data communications analysts.

Not everyone believes federal grant money is spent exactly that way. One of them is David Dies, executive director of the Wisconsin Educational Approval Board. "Many of the federal dollars targeted at job training are really not designed to get people into 'hot jobs,'" Dies said. "They are really designed to get people into entry-level positions that hopefully will lead them to pursuing additional training that could lead to that hot job. These are pretty first-level types of positions they are trying to gear up for."

Madison College spokespeople contend the Center can get dislocated workers pointed toward careers in the hot occupations and help them advance over time. They also note that when the economy gains more traction, the Center can transition from serving dislocated workers to adults learners.

Flex Time

The for-profit institutions that Dies represents and technical schools like Madison College (formerly MATC) tout their ability to quickly design relevant curriculum, but the Center for Adult Learning claims even more flexibility in terms of when dislocated workers can receive training.

Nancy Woodward, director of the Center, noted that it's a partnership between Madison College and the Workforce Development Board of Southcentral Wisconsin. To develop the Center's programming, each member of the Workforce Development Board invited 10 employers to take part in small focus groups to identify the kinds of jobs that are available in the region and who would most likely be hiring in the future.

"We took that information and identified areas to target," Woodward explained. "The targets included health care, certain kinds of manufacturing, business technology, and information technology. The goal was to build training programs around those."

The result is a series of academies, with different levels of advancement, designed to build the relevant job skills of displaced workers. There are academies in general studies (written communications and math with business applications), business technology, medical reception, medical billing, information technology, help desk support, dental assistants, insurance, and welding.

Before starting their academy, displaced workers can prep with workplace skills instruction. "So many dislocated workers have no computer skills," Woodward stated. "It's even as basic as how do you turn on a computer? How do you operate a mouse? How do you click? We have workplace skills training where they can come in and get that background, not only in computer literacy but also in writing and math."

The programs are run on an as-needed time frame, marking the first time Madison College has done this. Since opening Feb. 1, the Center has served 1,000 dislocated workers and has had no trouble filling its academies. "We know dislocations happen at any time," Woodward noted. "People could receive a dislocation notice on Sept. 15, when the fall semester has already started, but they can't wait until January to start the semester. We've staggered them throughout the semester, and they can start at any time."

The Center has 30 instructors, and its staff helps adult students with registration for classes and orientation, financial aid, and scheduling. Marjorie Cook, who started at Madison Area Technical College and went on to earn a doctorate at UW-Madison, serves as the senior advisor for displaced workers.

Students like Debi Peterson and Katy Johnson like the aspirational aspects of Center programming. Both find themselves in career transitions —Peterson, after voluntarily leaving the child care field and Johnson, after being let go from Navitus Health Solutions.

Both say the Center gives them a sense of purpose and fills their time with constructive, career-building education, rather than the sense of dread that abrupt change can bring to displaced workers. Peterson, who had been working in child care for 20 years, was ready for a change but she needed to upgrade her computer skills. She owned a personal computer but was not exactly a technology geek, and computer skills are a must as she pursues a job in medical reception. The business technology academy she has enrolled in features Windows XP, Excel 2007, Word 2007, and keyboarding. The medical reception academy, which includes training in medical terminology, starts in October and runs for two months. From there, she could go on to pursue additional education, including the Center's medical billing specialist academy, or re-enter the workforce.

After the medical reception academy, Peterson expects to be in a position to apply for jobs at local hospitals and clinics. She earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education from UW-Whitewater and tried teaching for a semester, but quickly realized teaching was not for her. The opportunity to elevate herself into a health care career has been the transitional spark she needed. "I tell people that I'm not a religious person, but my prayers were answered," Peterson said. "It was something to get me started on a new career path.

"I was getting frustrated and tired of the job search because I wasn't qualified for anything. I could have found a child care position because of my experience. For 20 years, each time I thought of changing jobs and interviewed for a child care job, I got the job, but I really wanted to change careers."

Johnson was employed as a prior authorization specialist at Navitus until last October, when the company fired the entire Madison staff to relocate their jobs to Appleton. They were not given the option to move to Appleton along with their jobs, so Johnson, who has always been employed in health care, started applying at local hospitals. She worries that her age, 53, works against her, but the hospitals want specific certifications that she lacks.

She knew how to process prior authorizations on the related business systems, but she had no recent experience with Word and Excel. The business technology academy she took at the Center was very helpful in bringing her up to speed on both, but she's not settling for that. The medical receptionist academy is next, and it will cover intermediate Excel, keyboarding, medical office, and medical language.

Eventually, she wants to go into medical coding but failing that, she believes the accreditation that comes with completing the medical reception academy will enable her to land some type of medical opening. "I've been a medical receptionist a lot of times but, again, I'm stuck without college credits in this. I hope this will give me an edge."

Johnson would like the Center to consider specific medical coding skills in one of its medical academies because it's hard to get into medical coding at Madison College, where there is a long waiting list. Still, she expects to benefit from programming that can augment the skills she already has. "It's going to give me a good opportunity," she said.

According to Woodward, landing a job before completing an academy does not mean adult students cannot come back to the Center, re-enroll in the academy, and continue to build on their skills. "This will give them what they need to get started," she indicated. "It's great to have that job and come back and build on that and finish that technology education."

Once the economy improves to a sufficient extent, the Center plans to focus more on adult learning rather than transitioning displaced workers. Prior to the recession, Madison College planned to ramp up adult learning because Wisconsin had a worker shortage and because of the multiple career transitions people now make. "We know non-traditional learners have different needs than traditional learners," Woodward said.

Grant Management

The post-secondary education grant has been augmented by a $75,000 grant from Madison Community Foundation, but Barhorst already is thinking about where the Center will get funding once the current grant money runs out. "We will continue to apply for grants, and we hope to keep getting grants," she said. "If we do not, we still are committed to this Center as long as there is a need. Where we get the money, that is something else that keeps me up at night."

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