Workers Get Recycled

IT training, development courses give laid-off employees hope-and skills-for developing new careers.

Richard Pietruszka was a steelworker for a long time: 20 years as electrician at the Cleveland site of LTV Steel Corp., then seven years as repairman of steel fabrication instruments. But as of June 16, he got a new position. The title of his new post is laid off.

His new duties are simple: Attend classes to get retrained and hope that an A+ certification—which will certify him to be an entry-level computer service technician—plus years of work experience will get him rehired. Luckily, as he prepares for this quest, theres one big difference between Pietruszka and most individuals who are part of the burgeoning population of laid-off U.S. workers, which in August grew by some 66,048 over the same period last year, according to the latest statistics available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor. Pietruszkas edge: His former employer—thanks to a union contract—is paying to retrain him.

The A+ training, offered through New Horizons Computer Learning Center, in Cleveland, is administered via a career development program created in 1989 solely for retraining laid-off steelworkers. Under the program, created to satisfy contract provisions negotiated by the United Steel Workers of America, laid-off workers are each entitled to $1,800 in tuition assistance per year for use at state or private schools, according to Jennifer Hedinger, administrator of career development for LTVs Cleveland site. While the program offers retraining, it does not guarantee a new position with the laid-off workers old employer. Layoffs in the past year have brought 60 workers into New Horizons classes in Cleveland.

It would be nice to say the training signals a trend toward greater generosity on the part of enterprises toward laid-off workers, but experts say its rare. "I find this extremely unusual," said Maria Schafer, an analyst at Meta Group Inc., in Stamford, Conn.

Still, Schafer stressed, the few enterprises that offer retraining—Texas Instruments Inc., of Dallas, is one—are the smart ones. Theyre not only building long-lasting relationships with workers; theyre also creating a pipeline for filling important IT positions.

"[Companies that retrain laid-off workers] will be able to pull back those people in categories where they still have need," Schafer said. "And the loyalty factor will be quite high. Taking that longer-term view may cost them something now, but if theyre able to utilize those skills, theyll be able to use them in their functioning IT organization, which is still critical to the way [companies do] business."

But are there entry- level IT jobs ready to absorb newcomers to the IT profession? It depends on where you look and whom you ask. Schafer said that despite the economic downturn, certain skill categories are in great demand, including networking and database skills.

At TI, Human Resources Business Manager Russ Elliott said that, given the hard job market, retraining for laid-off workers is more important than ever. TI announced the closing of its Santa Cruz, Calif., fabrication plant in March—a shutdown that will displace more than 600 workers when the factory doors close for good at years end.

TI is paying laid-off workers two to six months severance pay—an amount that gives them the opportunity to go back to school. In addition, the company pays up to $6,000 in tuition assistance. On top of it all, federal grant money administered by the Employment Development Department and distributed through the counties of Santa Cruz and Monterey grants each worker up to $5,000 in training funds.

Many laid-off TI fab workers are choosing IT training, taking software development courses or studying to prepare for A+ or Network+ certifications. The training is offered on-site at the plant.

Neither TI nor LTV Steel is tracking the rates at which their laid-off, retrained employees are being rehired, although Elliott did note that 150 laid-off engineers are having an easier time finding work than 400 manufacturing technicians. Ten percent of the laid-off workers transferred to other TI sites. Between 100 to 150 of the laid-off workers are pursuing skill upgrades, and most are choosing IT professions, Elliott said.

Experts say that, in their search for IT positions, laid-off workers should avail themselves of not just classes but all resources available at the training institutes they attend. That can include internships or co-operative work opportunities.

When choosing IT skills to learn or brush up on, laid-off workers should also keep an ear to the ground to determine what flavors enterprises need. Networking infrastructure and integration skills are hot now. Thats because, while companies arent frantic launching Web sites as they were before the dot-com meltdown, they are under "huge pressure" to improve key internal systems such as their supply chain systems, Schafer said.

At TIs Career Center, Manager Mary Kay Bigelow advises laid-off fabrication plant workers to come in and get help with résumés and with interviewing and negotiating skills. "It gives you that competitive edge needed in a tight market," said Bigelow, in Santa Cruz.

As for Pietruszka, hes taking advantage of everything LTVs career center has to offer, including a recent workshop on applying for government jobs. But he said his real hope lies in getting rehired by the steel company. "Youve had me for 27 years," Pietruszka imagines hell say to LTV when he tries to get rehired with his new IT skills. "Youve got all this time and money invested in me. Instead of throwing me out on the street, bring me back. Im sure I could do something."