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Long Islanders go back to school for job training

In response to difficult economic times Laura Healion,

In response to difficult economic times Laura Healion, 49, is studying health information technology at Nassau Community College with Health Information Technology Professor Susan Goldson, left. (March 11, 2010) Photo Credit: Photo by Dave Sanders

Long Islanders who have lost their jobs are heading by the hundreds to local colleges to get certified in recession-resistant careers - ranging from dietitian to high-tech machine operator.

Training usually takes a year or more, costs several thousand dollars and results in a certificate rather than a college degree. Still, many of those looking to change careers say retraining has led to new jobs or has significantly improved their chances of getting hired.

Some fields are especially alluring. At Nassau Community College, the number of students pursuing certificates in hospital information technology has tripled to 225 in the past year, and most of those are adults who have held jobs, not students fresh from high school. Suffolk County Community College's pharmacy technician program has quadrupled since its launch four years ago, from 20 students then to 80 now. Again, older students are driving the surge.

At Molloy College, a program in fundraising and development that began three years ago now has 30 students.

"We're finding a wide variety of people retooling because they lost their jobs or the future of their industry looked bleak," said John Lombardo, director of corporate training at SCCC, which canvasses local businesses to see what kind of training they want employees to have. The state Department of Labor has provided grants to Suffolk to pay for the retraining of dozens of workers who are unemployed.

The state also paid nearly half the cost of the $5.5-million Workforce Development and Technology Center, a cavernous building that opened last September with millions of dollars worth of drill presses, computerized milling machines and other equipment where workers train for three fields: heating and ventilation, manufacturing technology, and aerospace and defense.

On a recent tour, Lombardo pointed to a 7-foot-tall computer-controlled milling machine that allows workers to learn how to make aluminum and titanium parts to the exacting specifications of Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. and area employers.

In a classroom building across a parking lot, students were learning algebra as part of their retraining to be pharmaceutical technicians. Almost 90 percent of the students find jobs by the time they finish, said Nina Leonhardt, who directs the program. That was the experience of Natasha Barrett, 35, of Bay Shore, who entered the program after losing her records job when a hospital laid off back-office workers. "I tell my children, it's always good to go back to school and keep current," said Barrett, who found a part-time job in a chain pharmacy last year.

Experts caution that some states have wasted money on high-tech training for older workers with no computer skills. "Not all these programs benefit people who enroll," said Robert J. LaLonde, a University of Chicago economist who studies the costs and outcomes of retraining. "If you don't have skills coming in, you're probably not going to get much out of it."

In addition, he said, not all of the training prepares people for stable jobs that pay good wages. The better programs, he said, teach practical skills like those needed by electricians or nurses. "The good news," he added, "is that you can teach an old dog new tricks."

Instructors in retraining programs say they are seeing students who have 20 or more years' experience in real estate, banking and advertising, all of which have shed jobs in the New York area. Encouraged by the Obama administration's interest in renewable energy, Suffolk County Community College is expanding its weatherization, solar electric and geothermal heating programs.

Hot job fields

These are some of the hot fields Long Islanders are retraining for:

Nurse

Pharmaceutical technician

Home health aide

Physical therapist

Medical records coding and management

Fundraising and development

Optometric technician

High-tech manufacturing machine operators and programmers

Dietetic technician

Substance abuse counseling

Culinary arts

Sources: Nassau Community College, Suffolk County Community College

Playing to her strengths

Myrna Memoli spent 25 years working in market research, first in Manhattan and later near her home in Port Washington. Then, in 2008, her boss told her he was downsizing and eliminating her job.

Memoli consulted a career coach, who helped her figure out her strengths. Memoli realized she liked working for nonprofit groups, and by volunteering discovered she had a zest for fundraising. Someone told her Molloy College offered a fundraising and development certificate, and last spring she started what she estimates will be a yearlong, $2,000 course of study.

Memoli, who gives her age as "mid-50s baby boomer," spent seven months as a volunteer with Huntington Hospital while studying, and then was hired by the hospital's development office for a full-time job.

"If you want to make a change and you need knowledge," she said, "there are so many opportunities out there."

Investing in her future

Laura Healion earned an associate degree in advertising at what is now called Farmingdale State College in 1978, but delayed her career in order to raise three children. Last year, Healion decided to return to the workforce, in part because the economy had slowed business at her husband's company, which builds tennis courts.

By then, of course, Healion's three-decade-old degree was out of date. "When I studied advertising, computers were new, so everything changed since then," she said. Healion, 49, calls herself a "news junkie," and she kept noticing reports that health care jobs were available.

She's too squeamish, she says, to work with patients, so she decided to study medical records technology at Nassau Community College. She commutes from home in Centerport, and is about halfway through a certificate program she expects will take her 16 months to complete. Of the $4,000 tuition, she says, "It's an investment, and I think it will be worthwhile because I'll earn it back.

Throughout last year, Natasha Barrett, 35, told her four children that they need to do well in school as she was trying to do the same thing.

Barrett, 35, of Bay Shore, was laid off from a hospital records job two years ago and started thinking about how to prepare herself for an unpredictable job market. In her 20s, she’d spent a year at a college in Florida, and she felt she needed marketable skills. She entered a pharmaceutical tech program at Suffolk County Community College, paid for by the state Department of Labor.

“It was kind of hard but you do what you have to do because you have to do it,” Barrett said. As part of the program, Barrett did an externship at a chain drugstore, and by the time she’d earned her certificate in December, the store had offered her an $8-per-hour job. Barrett hopes to work her way up to a better job, with benefits.

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