White-collar workers retrain to boost skills

Growing numbers of unemployed white-collar workers are heading Growing numbers of unemployed white-collar workers are heading to Long Island colleges, including the Suffolk County Community College campuses, for retraining to improve their chances of finding a job. Retraining, once largely associated with blue-collar workers, is increasingly focused on professionals, who were hit hard during the recession. Photo Credit: Handout, 2010

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Growing numbers of unemployed white-collar workers are heading to Long Island colleges for retraining to improve their chances of finding a job.

Retraining, once largely associated with blue-collar workers, is increasingly focused on professionals, who were hit hard during the recession.

"When people think about retraining in the United States, they are usually talking about lower-level workers who don't have computer skills," said Kate Wendleton, president of the Five O'Clock Club, a Manhattan career-management and outplacement firm. However, she said, "retraining is necessary at all levels."

Though hard data on retraining enrollment are difficult to come by, colleges and universities on Long Island, including Adelphi University, Farmingdale State College, Hofstra University, Stony Brook University and Suffolk County Community College, say they are offering more of these courses, which are generally taken through continuing education programs, to accommodate growing demand.

Giving it the old college try this time, though, usually means that unemployed professionals focus on short-term, certificate courses, rather than notching another degree. Certificates in hot areas such as project management, a skill that helps companies improve their operational efficiencies and move products to market faster, and health-care technology attract attention from employers -- boosting job applicants' odds of getting a foot in the door.

After obtaining a certificate, many professionals take industry exams to further bolster their credentials. The Newtown Square, Pa.-based Project Management Institute projects a 16.4 percent increase in overall project-oriented employment between 2010 and 2020. The average annual wage for those passing the institute's exam was about $98,000 in 2010. Some programs on Long Island report placement rates of 40 percent and higher.

Tough labor market

To be sure, white-collar retraining and certificates aren't a sure ticket to a job in a fiercely competitive labor market. Long Island's latest unemployment rate -- 7.2 percent in October -- continued to reflect sluggish job growth.

Layoffs on Wall Street have been part of the problem. New York City jobs in securities, commodities contracts and other related activities shrank to 170,200 in October, down 18,400 from October 2007, shortly before the recession began, state Labor Department data show.

Stony Brook in 2009 started its Corporate Education and Training program amid the seismic downsizing on Wall Street that cost many Long Islanders their jobs.

"When we started to see waves of professionals starting to lose their jobs, we decided that we would support them by offering this project management credential," said Patricia Malone, executive director of the university's corporate training program.

Some people who lost their Wall Street jobs "had been the head of projects for JPMorgan Chase globally or Citibank or Lehman Brothers," Malone said. "They had master's degrees. They had advanced degrees from Wharton Business School. They were unbelievably trained and educated. But they could not get a hit on their resume because they didn't have the [project management professional] credential."

The university said the program's courses, which include topics such as business analysis, are taught by people with advanced degrees in fields like business and computer science. The program has trained more than 800 unemployed professionals and has an estimated 40 percent success rate.

Helped in job search

Kristin Mink, of Lake Ronkonkoma, enrolled in the Stony Brook program after losing her job as director of product management at Welcome Wagon in February 2009. A colleague told her about Stony Brook's program, and she got more information from the state Labor Department. Mink, 38, who has a bachelor's degree in marketing/management from the University at Albany, graduated from the local, monthlong program in December 2010.

Four months later she landed a job as an associate project manager at MSC Industrial Direct Co., a tool and industrial-supply distributor and one of Long Island's largest companies. Mink said the project management course helped her get the job: "It showed that I was taking an initiative to better myself."

Her new employer values project-management certification: "We recognize that these credentials, coupled with the right skill sets and strong industry experience, make for an ideal candidate," said Eileen McGuire, MSC's executive vice president of human resources.

Rockville Centre resident Lourdes Del Valle, who has a bachelor's degree in psychology and marketing from Fordham University, graduated from the Stony Brook program this year. Though she hasn't found a job since being laid off in 2008 from her marketing-campaign planning position at a German technology company in Manhattan, Del Valle said she has gotten a better reception from prospective employers because of the project management course.

"It's given me the ability to speak in terms that would benefit companies," she said.

Sometimes the courses are free for the unemployed. Some people qualify for funds from the state Labor Department's many training programs. Some programs rely on government grants. Malone said Stony Brook received a $27,000 commitment of state funding for the project management class of 18 that graduated in the fall. Individuals not eligible for funding pay $2,800 for the course, Malone said.

Improving skills

Suffolk County Community College introduced a computer training class in 2009 to help unemployed financial workers upgrade their skills.

They "needed computer skills to transfer financial skills into something else," said John Lombardo, associate vice president for workforce and economic development.

More than 50 percent of the 100 workers who have taken the course have found jobs, Lombardo said.

Point Lookout resident Jane Besso, who has a bachelor's degree in social work from the University at Buffalo, took the computer course after finishing Stony Brook's project management program. She decided on retraining in general after being laid off from two jobs in Manhattan -- one was a senior print production director post at Bertelsmann Direct Group that she lost in 2007 after nearly 18 years with the company. Besso, who already knew Microsoft Excel and Office, took the computer course as a refresher.

"It sharpened my skills," she said.

She has since been able to transition to the green industry. In October 2011 she was hired as a project manager at Island Park-based EmPower Solar, which installs solar panels in homes and businesses.

Among Hofstra University's offerings that increasingly include unemployed professionals is health-care information technology, a growing field because of health-care reform.

"That is a really hot program, because it has to do with electronic medical records," said Debbi Honorof, senior director of marketing and communications at Hofstra's continuing education program.

Eighty-five percent of those who receive certificates get jobs, Honorof said.

At Farmingdale State College, there is such a demand for certificate courses that director of business outreach MaryEllen DeCicco tries to introduce at least two or three new ones every year.

Several hundred people have completed a course that began in 2009 to help architects, engineers and others prepare to take an exam for the "leadership in energy and environmental design," or LEED credential, which would make them more marketable in the fast-growing green industry. The college doesn't track placement rates she said.

"You have to stand out," DeCicco said, "with something that is going to be a bit more enticing to employers."

What it costs

Sampling of continuing-education college courses to help with skills upgrade. Some of the jobless qualify for state training funds to cover costs.

Adelphi University

"RN Refresher Course"  for nursing; six weeks; $2,220

Farmingdale State College

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"Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design," a green-industry course for engineers, architects, etc.; six four-hour sessions; up to $1,800

Hofstra University

Health-care technology; two semesters; about $4,400

Stony Brook University

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Corporate Education and Training, including project management; about a month long; $2,800

Suffolk County Community College

Microsoft Office computer courses; 120 hours, entry-level through advanced; $500 to $600

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