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Retraining programs aid LI workers in jobs at risk of automation

Retraining has taken on a sense of urgency as automation leaves some workers with bleak prospects. Their best hope for stable employment is to retrain for a growing industry that interests them, experts said.

Lisbeth Mejía, 19, of Hempstead, a supermarket cashier,

Lisbeth Mejía, 19, of Hempstead, a supermarket cashier, is seen July 18 at Access Careers in Hempstead, where she is enrolled in a medical assistant program. Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Rapid changes in automation and technology are leading workers on Long Island and nationwide to retrain for new careers.

Malika D. Muschette, 25, of Baldwin, who became a bank teller in February, has seen the spread of teller-less banks and witnessed consumers’ growing appetite for automated services.

“There are so many ATMs around that you don’t really need a person to handle your money,” she said. “It’s kind of scary.”

Earlier this month, she enrolled in a certified nursing assistant program at Access Careers, a Hempstead for-profit institute that offers training for seven other occupations, including medical assistant, pharmacy technician and medical billing and coding. After she completes eight weeks of classroom training, for which she pays $150 a week, and a 30-hour internship, she has to pass a certification exam and obtain her state license, allowing her to assist nurses in hospitals or nursing homes.

Mini Sawhney, director and co-founder of Access Careers, said 85 percent of the institute's graduates get jobs.

“Our placement rate is high,” said Sawhney, who recently opened an Islandia location. “Most of these students are here to find jobs.” 

The institute is accredited by the Council on Occupational Education in Atlanta, which said it surveys a sample of students at institutions to verify placement rates.

About 90 percent of the students pay out of pocket weekly, Sawhney said. The rest pay with student loans or are funded through a state Labor Department program.

Access recently received a $99,990 grant from the state Labor Department to train about 25 unemployed or underemployed Long Island residents as certified nursing assistants.

The issue of retraining has taken on a sense of urgency on Long Island and across the country as automation leaves some workers with bleak prospects in their current fields. Their best hope for stable employment is to retrain for a growing industry, experts said.

“With the ever-changing job market, it is critical for individuals to consider retraining options that will lead them to a new career and opportunities for advancement,” said Dawn Nolan, director of the Center for Workforce Development at Nassau Community College in Garden City.

On Long Island, 182,650 jobs, or 13.8 percent of the total, are at a high risk of automation, according to a study published last month by the Center for an Urban Future, a Manhattan think tank that advocates for the creation of middle-class jobs. The study, which looked at regions around the state, considered jobs to be highly automatable when 80 percent or more of the tasks could be performed by machines. Occupations at the highest risk include food preparation and serving workers, such as those in the fast-food industry; bookkeeping, accounting and auditing clerks; and stock clerks and order fillers. Those results match the findings for the state overall.

“A new wave of automation is coming down the pike, and it has the potential to transform tens of thousands of jobs across the state,” says Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the center. “State and local officials need to get ahead of this and start preparing New Yorkers now for a more automated economy.”

Job security a concern

A Pew Research Center study published last year found that 6 percent of U.S. adults had lost a job or had their wages or hours reduced because their employer replaced elements of their position with a machine, robot or computer program. Workers ages 18 to 24 experienced the biggest disruptions, with 13 percent saying their jobs had been affected.

Supermarket cashier Lisbeth Mejía, 19, of Hempstead, said she is worried that her hours may be cut because of the popularity of self-checkout aisles, which her employer is contemplating installing.

“They are thinking about doing something bigger, and at any time, they can say, ‘We don’t need you anymore. We are doing self-checkouts,’ ” she said.

So she enrolled in the medical assistant program at Access that costs $12,500, which she is paying with federal student loans and grants. During nine months of classroom training and a 300-hour internship, she will learn to perform clinical procedures such as electrocardiograms and carry out routine laboratory tests, such as drawing blood in a doctor’s office.

Mejía, who has always wanted to study medicine and plans to go to medical school, said health care offers more secure employment.

“There is always a position in the medical field,” she said. “They will always need a nurse, a medical assistant, a doctor.”

Shortage of skilled labor

Experts see retraining as a means to help alleviate the shortage of skilled labor on Long Island and across the country.

Millions of jobs nationwide are going unfilled because of a lack of skilled workers. In May, the number of job openings rose to 6.6 million from 5.7 million a year earlier, according to the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By contrast, in May 2008, in the depths of the recession, the country had 3.6 million job openings.

To deal with the shortage of skilled workers, President Donald Trump on July 19 announced the creation of the National Council for the American Worker to press employers to provide more job training and apprenticeship opportunities. 

The shortage of workers has economic consequences.

“Right now we are in a very tight labor market where there are vast numbers of jobs that are going unfilled,” said employment lawyer Dan Eaton, an instructor in business ethics at San Diego State University. “That means that output is not at the level it could be with a workforce fully trained to meet employer demand.”

With such high stakes, experts believe that job retraining requires a concerted effort among employees, employers, nonprofits and government to make sure the retraining addresses the shortage.

“Educational institutions, government, nonprofits, we have to collaborate,” said Rosalie Drago, regional director in the Huntington office of Workforce Development Institute Inc., a nonprofit that provides funding for workforce training. “We need to be able to respond with flexibility and agility to what companies need,” said Drago, whose group receives state funding.

The nonprofit helped Roosevelt resident Renee Baptiste, 27, retrain for a career in the utility industry after her opportunities dwindled in the cosmetics field because of the internet. She worked for a cosmetics company and had her own consulting business part-time. Her consulting business didn’t flourish because the makeup skills she provided can be learned from Instagram or Snapchat tutorials, she said.

“They are able to take control of their own beauty routine or skin care routine, and that is a good thing that consumers are empowered, but that limits the need for consultants,” Baptiste said.

'Foot in the door'

Last year she received an email from HempsteadWorks, a town service that assists job seekers and businesses, about a free program that provides training to help women get utility jobs. She was accepted into the URGENT program, or Utility Readiness for Gaining Employment for Non-Traditionals.

Drago's group provided the majority of the funding for the pilot program in which Baptiste participated, with some additional support from employers that include National Grid and PSEG Long Island, Nolan of NCC said. The college worked with employers and local government agencies to develop the program and find candidates. The employers then interviewed graduates and offered some of them jobs.

Baptiste completed the nearly four-month program in May 2017. By July 2017 she was working at National Grid as a meter reader. She estimated she is earning 50 percent more than she made in her previous job. She also is studying at NCC  for a degree in civil engineering so she can design drainage systems and roads.

“I feel really lucky,” she said. “I just wanted to get my foot in the door.”

Of the 23 women who entered the first URGENT program last year, 21, or 91 percent, completed it, said Janet Caruso, assistant vice present for workforce development and lifelong learning at NCC. Of that group, 15, or 71 percent, obtained full-time jobs, including 10 in the utilities industry. In this year’s program, 27 started and all but one completed the program. They are now applying for positions, Caruso said.

John Bruckner, president of National Grid New York, said in a statement: "We fully support [URGENT's] mission of putting women in high-demand, often nontraditional roles in the energy industry."

Training shouldn’t be shouldered solely by individuals because of the high cost, experts said.

“It is time-consuming and costly, and most households probably do not have the savings to be able to pay for that retraining,” said Richard Vogel, dean of the School of Business at Farmingdale State College.

Costs present challenge

Affordability is a big factor to many trainees. Hunter Business School, which has locations in Levittown and Medford, charges $14,400 for its medical assistant program, which consists of 910 hours of classroom training and a 160-hour internship, said Jay Fund, the school’s president and owner.

Sawhney said the certified nursing assistant program is Access Careers’ most popular because it is one of shortest and least expensive. Collaboration among employers, government and nonprofits helps to ensure that employees are training for jobs that are in demand, experts said.

“If the companies are not involved, they can’t help make sure that the skills are the ones they want," said Professor Arthur Wheaton, an automotive expert in Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Ithaca.

But most importantly, employees should retrain for industries that interest them to ensure that their investment pays off.

“Whether in a growing field or a shrinking field, we all do a better job if we are doing something we are engaged in,” said G. James Lemoine, assistant professor of organization and human resources in the University at Buffalo's School of Management.

People interested in training programs should research them to ensure they are reputable.  The company that operated ITT Technical Institute closed down in 2016, after the federal government accused it of offering low-quality programs and high-interest loans and limited the institute's access to government student loan programs. 

Baptiste said that when your chosen field has a bleak outlook, it makes sense to change careers.

“It is a lot more scary climbing a ladder in an industry that will not get you to goals that you want,” she said. "So you might as well make the jump and try something different.”

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