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Working for the long term

I find myself reading and rereading the Time interview with Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, which ran in the magazine and on the blog this past week.

There, she talks about the importance of getting displaced workers back in school and prepared for new professions.

So sayeth the Gov:

“This is the perfect time to go back and get retrained--but get retrained in an emerging sector. We won't pay for you to get a degree in French or political science--those are my degrees so I can say that safely--but we will pay for you to get a degree in something that is of need, like nursing. We have 80,000 vacancies even though we have high unemployment. There is a skills gap.”

Recently, I spoke with Jerry Tester, a former contract engineer for General Motors Corp. He is one of the few who have gone through retraining and successfully found a career in another field than automotive.

Tester is a graduate of the Talascend Global Training Academy, based in the Detroit suburb of Troy. The state paid for most of his re-training – and he actually got a job out of it.

The Academy is a division of Talascend, a global technical staffing company. It is being run in partnership with Macomb Community College and works with Michigan's “No Worker Left Behind” Program for funding eligible students. (Read more about the No Worker program's success here.)

Its goal is to recruit and re-train designers and engineers from declining business segments (read: car companies) and putting them to work for Talascend's clients, explained Academy President Jason Dawson.

Right now, the Academy offers training primarily in the oil and gas, power, rail, heavy agriculture, aerospace and petrochemicals industries. (Sadly, some of these areas are now hurting and not hiring as quickly, Dawson admitted, but he believes they will bounce back – and probably faster than car manufacturing, sayeth the snarky reporter girl.)

Tester was among the first class of students to graduate from the Academy, which opened in January 2009. The six-week course was “a full-time job and then some,” Tester said.

In August, Tester got a job for Marathon Oil in Detroit. He is now a senior designer for piping layouts in the refinery area.

It is a job he desperately needed. GM conducted a bloodletting of engineers over the past few years, and Tester had been out of work so long that he got behind on his house payments. He's hoping his lender will be kind now that he has a job and can start paying them back.

“I am one of the lucky ones,” said Tester, the relief palatable in his voice.

He is especially glad to be at Marathon, which allows him to stay near his children.

“I would have taken a job anywhere; I'm happy I landed in Detroit,” Tester said. “Thirty miles from home is better than 3,000 miles.”

Dawson describes its students as the kind of people all businesses should want to hire. They typically have 10 to 15 years of experience. They have excellent work ethics. They understand deadlines. And they still have passion for the work.

“They don't want to be anything else – they want to be designers and engineers for the long term,” Dawson said.

I'm thankful for programs like this, which keep people employed. I'm happy Tester is still here and enjoys his new career. I'm sad the car companies lost a good engineer. But that is life in Michigan right now. When life gives you lemons, you can make a sour face. Or you can squeeze whatever life is left in them. What else can you do?

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