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Retraining alone doesn't do the job

A town hit by a factory closure tries widely prescribed remedies and learns some hard lessons.

July 10, 2011|Don Lee

GREENVILLE, MICH. — When the Electrolux refrigerator factory shut down in 2006, idling almost 3,000 workers, this self-proclaimed Refrigerator Capital of the World put the last two locally produced units in a museum.

And the town itself might follow -- a once-thriving community overwhelmed by economic forces beyond its control and seemingly bound for history's dustbin.

Waves of layoffs hit other factories. New start-ups cut back. Hard times hit local stores, service firms and government agencies.

Like hundreds of other American towns ravaged by the recession, Greenville learned how losing jobs can spread like a contagion through families and institutions that form the heart of a community.

Things got so bad that a special office was created recently to help more than 1,000 schoolchildren who had no real homes. "It's a heinous situation," said Brenda Greenhoe, director of the office.

Greenville, though, is more than a sad story. It's a petri dish for testing one of the most widely prescribed remedies for reviving troubled communities -- job training.

The idea promoted by economists, business leaders and politicians is to send unemployed workers back to school to learn new skills for different jobs required in the new economy.

Only then, the argument goes, can such workers and the country as a whole regain the broad-based, sustainable prosperity that long defined American life with an economy that most workers can count on to build a better future.

"The fact is, we understand what it takes to build a stronger economy," President Obama said recently. "Above all, it requires training and educating our citizens to out-compete workers from other countries.... That's how we're going to help more Americans climb into the middle class and stay there."

But Greenville's experience is both an encouraging tale of the potential for revitalization and a cautionary story of how hard it is to make job training work on a broad scale -- especially without a comprehensive government plan to make sure that new jobs exist and that companies offering them remain successful.

Over the last decade alone, about 42,000 U.S. factories have closed. No state was hit as hard as Michigan. Government leaders, including those in Greenville, responded by betting heavily on clean technologies, offering cash and tax incentives to attract companies involved in wind farms, solar energy and electric cars.

And, by consolidating a hodgepodge of federal programs, it provided as much as $5,000 a year for tuition and books for up to two years, as long as workers attended approved schools and enrolled in certificate or degree programs in fields of study deemed to have better job prospects.

During the last five years, hundreds of laid-off Greenville workers went back to school. Some sat in classrooms from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. studying hydraulics and vacuum technology. Others trained in healthcare, transportation and the clean technologies widely seen as having bright futures.

Greenville, a town of 8,000 people set amid rolling fields and scattered lakes northeast of Grand Rapids, has worked hard to make retraining pay off. Nearly 600 former Electrolux workers took training at nearby Montcalm Community College, said Bob Ferrentino, the school's president.

Hopes soared when the town recruited a solar panel maker, United Solar Ovonic, which built a state-of-the-art plant amid fields of potatoes and other crops.

But the results have been mixed, for reasons that go to the heart of the unemployment problem in Greenville and the rest of the country. Overall, about 55% of the retrained workers had jobs as of last year.

The placement rate for those who trained specifically for Uni-Solar is similar. Ferrentino said more than 100 went through that program; about 50 work there now.

After completing 22 courses over 13 months of intensive study, Debbie Campbell is one of the successes. Today, the 52-year-old ponytailed veteran of the refrigerator assembly line works as a Uni-Solar technician. She makes about what she did at Electrolux, where she put in 28 years and was paid $16 an hour.

But for every worker like Campbell, there are dozens for whom things did not turn out so well.

Jerry Cannon learned to drive an 18-wheeler, but the long stretches on the road have strained his health and family.

Karen Kamradt retrained to be a medical assistant but could not find work in her new field. Her experience illustrates another problem with retraining as a remedy for unemployment.

Nationwide, healthcare is one of the few sectors in which employment opportunities are growing. In theory, she should have had no trouble getting a good job.

Locally, however, healthcare jobs are not growing rapidly. And, for family reasons, Kamradt -- like many other workers -- found it impractical to move elsewhere. So she drives a school bus part time for $10.47 an hour and hopes her new healthcare skills will pay off down the road.

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