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New careers through retraining

April 12, 2011
By Evan Bevins ( , The Marietta Times

With Washington County's unemployment rate topping 10 percent in recent years and the economy changing, local workers have had to be innovative and creative when it comes to updating their skills for the job market.

And as people look for new or better-paying jobs, Washington State Community College and the Washington County Career Center have worked to provide classes that benefit residents and employers.

Newport resident Kathy Rinard, 41, earned an associate's degree from Washington State in the '90s. She worked in an office setting for a while but was a stay-at-home mom for 12 years. When she decided to re-enter the workforce, she said she knew there would be plenty of competition for available jobs.

Rinard chose to enroll in a one-year medical billing and coding certification program at Washington State "just so I could get an edge on trying to get a job," she said.

"The area we live in, we have a lot of physicians' offices and a lot of hospitals," she said.

In her classes, Rinard met people who had lost jobs in the recent economic turmoil and knew a lot of them would be out "fighting for the same jobs," she said.

"It's very intimidating trying to get an interview, trying to get your foot in the door," Rinard said.

Unlike some job-seekers, Rinard found employment fairly quickly. About three weeks ago, she started work in the office of University Medical Associates in Belpre. She said she's enjoying the work and feels her classes at Washington State have helped prepare her for the job.

While Rinard's situation was a choice, some people find themselves looking for work because of cutbacks made by their previous employers. Finding a similar job to the one they had may be difficult, due to fewer being available as the area's manufacturing base has shrunk or due to new requirements being in place.

Federal money is available to assist workers who have been downsized and want to return to school. The U.S. government provides Trade Adjustment Act (TAA) funding for workers who have lost their jobs due to foreign competition. Workforce Investment Act (WIA) funding is available for downsized workers that do not qualify for TAA.

Washington State had 145 students receiving assistance from one of these sources during the 2008-09 school year. That number rose to 196 in 2009-10 and is back to 146 in the current school year.

But Amanda Herb, chief enrollment management officer at the college, said that doesn't mean the need is gone.

"A lot of the federal aid for those programs has been utilized," she said. "(But) there are still the core Pell grants and student loans that are always available."

As plants have cut their workforces over the years, Herb said people have realized the jobs that a person got straight out of high school and worked for decades aren't there anymore.

"It's creating a heightened level of awareness for education," she said.

Non-traditional students at Washington State also include people who may be employed but are looking to increase their abilities or develop new skills to make them more competitive in the job market should they need to look for other work, Herb said.

The Washington County Career Center's Adult Technical Training program currently has about 300 participants, about 175 of whom are receiving TAA money and 20 to 30 who are receiving Workforce Investment Act assistance, according to Alicia Miller, financial aid coordinator for the adult tech portion of the career center. Those numbers are similar to the totals for all of 2005, when there were about 330 students, 170 of whom received federal assistance.

The career center recently initiated a chemical operator training program in response to projected need by area employers. About 400 such jobs are expected to be filled by 2014.

"We work pretty closely with industry, and they've helped us design this program," said Dave Combs, adult director at the career center.

Another area seeing interest among adult students is the HVAC/refrigeration program.

"A lot of guys like that because it doesn't take a lot of tools to get started," Combs said.

Home remodeling and construction classes are running well, as are those in the medical field, he said.

"With medical, it's probably not going to be shipped off to a foreign country," Combs said. "It's something that's always going to be around."

The career center also has agreements in place to transfer credits students earn there to colleges. There are currently a few more such articulation agreements in place with Hocking Tech and West Virginia University at Parkersburg, but Combs said the career center does work with Washington State and hopes to do more with that institution in the future.



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