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Region's Jobless Turning to Training Programs

Karen Collins Henry, left, gets assistance from Marida Hines in a computer arts class at Montgomery College in Germantown. Henry is hoping to reinvent herself after losing her real estate job.
Karen Collins Henry, left, gets assistance from Marida Hines in a computer arts class at Montgomery College in Germantown. Henry is hoping to reinvent herself after losing her real estate job. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 4, 2009

Karen Collins Henry, who lost her real estate job when the housing market began to collapse in 2007, says her applications for work in a variety of fields have been rejected or ignored, so she's given up looking. Last fall, she began taking computer graphics courses and is pinning her hopes on a career developing video games that help special needs students learn in the classroom.

Henry is among a growing number of unemployed people in the Washington region opting for job training, some using government funding and others getting tax credits, to reinvent themselves after an often drawn-out and fruitless search for work.

"It seems like the requirements have changed, the stakes are higher, there is a bigger pool of people" looking for work, said Henry, who is enrolled at Montgomery College and plans to transfer to the University of Baltimore.

"I'll have my education in a cool field," Henry, 46, of Damascus, said. "Hopefully, I'll be employable."

Training officials caution that there's little guarantee that a job will be waiting given the economic climate, even in the Washington area, where proximity to the federal government has largely shielded the region from the large-scale job losses seen in other parts of the nation.

About 177,600 people are currently without jobs in the region. Data released last week show that the area's unemployment rate dropped to 5.9 percent in March from 6.1 percent the previous month. Local economists say the decline doesn't mean that more people are finding work, but rather that more are not being counted -- they've either stopped looking, left the system after exhausting their jobless claims or, like Henry, never made it into the system because they were self-employed and didn't pay unemployment insurance.

Because of that, Henry said, she does not qualify for government-funded job training. Her husband pays her tuition and is partially reimbursed through a tax credit.

The Obama administration recently moved to double the amount of training funds, allocating an additional $1.2 billion to expand programs, helping officials across the country whittle down their waiting lists.

The government is focusing much attention on creating 3 million green jobs, attempting to achieve that by increasing customer demand. Under President Obama's economic stimulus plan, the tax credit for homeowners who purchase energy-efficient improvements, such as air conditioners, heat pumps or furnaces, will increase to 30 percent from 10 percent.

So far, job training officials say such jobs have been slow to materialize.

Officials at Prince George's Community College say they were set to offer several training courses on how to install rooftop solar panels. But they postponed the classes after potential employers said they would not be able to hire the trainees.

"Employers say they want people trained, but they're not committed to hiring people after the training," said Dan Mosser, the college's vice president for workforce development and continuing education.

With some economists projecting job growth to occur no sooner than next year, policy makers are looking to introduce more short-term certification programs to help unemployed people build their skills while they're waiting. "We've talked about getting more into business certification," said Bob Simoneau, deputy executive director of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. "We're working with businesses on what needs they have and what would it take to meet those minimum needs."

The Northern Virginia Workforce Investment Board, which has seen traffic at its one-stop centers rise by 40 percent over recent months, is getting an additional $920,000 from the federal government and will enroll 175 more people in its job training programs.

But David Hunn, executive director of the workforce board, said there is no guarantee that trainees will get immediate employment or, especially, that they will match their previous wages. When the job market is tight, "there are fewer opportunities for people to rebound . . . to find another opportunity with a similar pay scale," Hunn said. "What we'd be giving someone is additional skills to make them more marketable in a recovering economy."

James Robinson, who lost his job as a custodian last spring, said he is grateful for his job training program. After taking several courses last summer in environmental cleanup, a field he left about five years ago, the New Carrollton resident said he was able to find work managing hazardous cleanup sites.

"My pay rate is $20 an hour to $35 an hour," Robinson said. "I couldn't have done it without the one-stop career center."

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