Chad Smith considered going to college, but as he landed a series of well-paying construction and auto-industry jobs over the past decade, school seemed like a waste of time and money.”When you’re making $55,000 at 18 years old, it’s hard to tell yourself to go to school,” he says. “You’ve got the world by the tail.”
Then, last May, he was laid off from his night-shift job at a Chrysler assembly plant. Even if he wanted to go back to construction, home building already had slowed to a crawl, offering few jobs. Now 29 years old, Mr. Smith is back in school through a federal retraining program, studying software development and computer networking at Rock Valley College, a community college in Rockford, Ill.
Mr. Smith’s career journey shows how both the recession and longer-term structural changes in the economy are hemming the choices of U.S. workers today — particularly in old-line manufacturing towns in the Midwest. When the auto and machine-tool industries prospered here, workers had little incentive to get college diplomas. But as manufacturing eroded, blue-collar towns like Rockford were hit harder than more diversified local economies.
Retraining has never been easy for workers, often stressing family finances. But in this deep recession, going back to school can be an even greater leap of faith. The velocity of recent layoffs means that many businesses are contracting rather than expanding their payrolls. That leaves many newly trained job seekers competing against more experienced workers who have also been laid off.
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Still, many people are scrambling to get retrained in hopes of catching the next economic updraft. In Rockford, a city of about 150,000 people about 90 miles northwest of Chicago, 19% of residents have at least a four-year college degree, compared with the national average of 27%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
That gap puts the region at a disadvantage when companies offering white-collar jobs are looking to open new offices. It partly explains Rockford’s unemployment rate, the highest in Illinois. Unemployment soared in the Rockford metropolitan area in December, to 12.5% from 7.1% a year earlier, the Illinois Department of Employment Security reported last week. In addition to Chrysler’s month long shutdown, smaller manufacturers in the Rockford area have been cutting jobs or closing their doors.
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Community colleges across the U.S. are reporting rising enrollments, even as state cuts squeeze their budgets. The more than $800 billion in economic-stimulus proposals being debated in Congress could help more workers like Mr. Smith. The current House proposal includes $4 billion for job training, including programs for dislocated employees.
That money also would be a boon for the retraining industry, which has fallen on hard times. Michael Williams, executive director of Rock River Training Corp., administers the program paying Mr. Smith’s tuition bill. Last year, when Chrysler closed its third shift and more than 1,000 employees were thrown out of work, Rock River Training set up a job-search network that hired some laid-off auto workers to be peer counselors.
Yet the program had to trim its own budget last year due to nationwide cutbacks in the federal program. “It was horrible timing,” Mr. Williams says. “Here we are in a period of extended high unemployment, and we don’t have sufficient staff or funds for retraining.”
The retraining program covers tuition payments only for workers who want to enter a field that the U.S. Department of Labor considers a growth area. Its top-ranked job category for 2006-2016 is computer network-systems and data-communications analysts, Mr. Smith’s chosen field, with a predicted 53.4% increase in the number of jobs available. It also ranks the field “very high” in median earnings, a category it applies to jobs with a median salary of at least $46,360.
Still, retraining isn’t always a panacea. While Mr. Smith plans to move into a potentially lucrative industry, he may have to take a pay cut. As the U.S. has shifted toward a service economy, many new jobs can’t match the wages workers once earned in factories.
Mr. Smith would be among the first men in his family of primarily blue-collar workers to go to college — a dramatic step he hopes will rub off on his three young sons. “I have to set that example,” he says.
Mr. Smith and his 32-year-old wife, Brandi, are making ends meet with his unemployment checks and her part-time job as a labor and delivery nurse at Swedish American Hospital, one of Rockford’s major employers. About two years ago, as Chrysler’s predicament became clear, they started discussing the possibility of Mr. Smith returning to school and began saving money to cover lost income.
Mr. Smith enrolled in the summer, with a remedial math class. In the fall, he took English, psychology and speech — and did well in each. Now, he’s taking his first computer classes as he tries to power through a heavier-than-normal course load, hoping to finish two associate’s degrees — in computer-network administration and information-technology security — in two years. He wavers between careers in Web design and software development, depending on the day. He would like to join a company that will help pay for his bachelor’s degree. Eventually, he wants to complete his master’s.
“I love school, because I’ve seen the other side,” he says.
But the path won’t be easy. Mr. Smith says he always learned course material easily in high school, but now he’s struggling. The night before one recent software class, he spent hours reading the first half of a chapter the class was scheduled to discuss. The next morning, the teacher started with the second half of the chapter, throwing Mr. Smith a curve. Dressed in a red hooded sweatshirt, jeans and Converse sneakers, Mr. Smith soon was taking notes with one hand and flipping through the textbook with the other.
“I was lost most of the time,” he recalls. “I look around and wonder if anybody else feels overwhelmed.” He expected to catch up after reading for about four hours that evening.
Most days he studies in the afternoon, helps put his boys to bed around 7 p.m., then settles in for another five to seven hours of homework. Near his computer are pictures of his sons, ages 2, 4 and 6, and an inspirational quote his wife painted on the wall: “Life is not measured by the breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away.” He usually wraps up between 2 and 4 a.m.
Mr. Smith says he is comfortable with his job prospects, despite the potential of a lingering recession that could weigh on hiring in all industries. Through friends, he has heard about two available computer network-administration jobs that he already would qualify for, but he would rather focus on finishing school and finding even better positions in the future.
“This is the most important way to make a better life for my family,” he says.
Ms. Smith supports her husband’s choice and says he has been helpful with their three boys. Still, being the primary breadwinner and bearing responsibility for the family’s health insurance can be stressful. At the hospital where she works, she says, “there’s been talk about layoffs.”