Laid-off workers learn new trades

Employees start new careers by enrolling in specialized degree or certification programs.

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By Jessica Dickler, staff writer

Which should be the Obama administration's priority?
  • Stimulating the economy
  • Reducing the budget deficit

NEW YORK ( -- In the worst labor market in 14 years, Americans from auto workers to financial analysts are considering a career change in hopes of landing a job.

Many job seekers are getting specialized training as a way to break into a new industry. Vocational, technical and trade schools, which provide a formal education in skilled trades from catering to computer programming, are seeing a surge in enrollments this year.

To make themselves more marketable, 26% of workers plan to go back to school to obtain a degree, certification or other training, according to Career Builder's Industry Trends Survey in September.

"It's a great time to do it, the national unemployment rate is 6.5%, but the unemployment rate for skilled workers is only 3.1%," said Doug Arms, chief talent officer Ajilon Global, professional staffing firm. "There's much higher demand for skilled workers in this type of economy."

Increased enrollment at technical and vocational schools is not uncommon in an economic downturn, according to Arms.

"Not only in this cycle but in past cycles our enrollments throughout our campuses are very tightly correlated with the unemployment rate," said Eugene Putnam, CFO of the Universal Technical Institute.

UTI offers undergraduate degrees and certificate programs for automotive, diesel and marine technicians. Over 90% of graduates find jobs in their field of study, Putnam said.

This September, enrollment at ITT Technical Institute, which offers degree programs in computer technology, Web development and programming, jumped 19.4% to over 61,000 students nationwide from the year earlier. Director of Communications Staci Schneider credits the weak job market for the rise.

"A lot of people are interested in pursuing alternative careers, particularly if they've been laid off," she said.

At ITT, 82% of last year's students obtained jobs in their field of study, according to Schneider.

DeVry University, which offers various career-oriented degree and certificate programs and flexible schedules for working students, also reported a spike in enrollment this year. For the summer 2008 session, 16,595 students enrolled in courses at DeVry campuses across the country, up 19% from the same period a year ago.

A lifestyle adjustment

Getting the training necessary to start a second career from scratch can be emotionally and financially difficult.

But as long as people "make peace with the huge lifestyle adjustments, this could be an opportunity to pursue a dream," said Max Caldwell, a managing principal in Towers Perrin's Workforce Effectiveness practice. But, "it's not all glamour," he cautioned.

Paul Bernard, a veteran executive coach and career management adviser who runs his own firm, similarly advises his clients to look before they leap. Switching careers means starting from the ground up all over again, he said.

"Sometimes people forget that having a talent for cooking is not the same as being in a kitchen peeling carrots."

Caldwell recommends that those interested in starting a second career should thoroughly research the industry before starting a training or degree program. "Go to the school's career office and see what kind of jobs graduates get," he said. "Know what you're getting yourself into."

And for those not quite ready to make a serious commitment to a second career, there are less intensive -- and less expensive -- options, Arms said. "Continuing education does not need to be as formal as getting a degree."

And there are cheaper and less formal ways to expand on existing skill sets in order to be more competitive in the job market. For example, online training programs, books and software applications can teach you skills that you can tack on to your resume today, he said. To top of page

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