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Economy | Getting Back To Work

Many People Getting Back To Work Via The Classroom

This week, OPB is looking at what people are doing to get hired — and what they're doing to make sure they can stay employed in the future.

Today in our series, we look at people who are "Getting Back to Work" by way of the classroom. But what should they be learning?

As Rob Manning reports from Southwest Washington, students and teachers are looking for a balance, between learning in a classroom – and learning on the job.  

Richard Barrett is one of hundreds of new students at Clark College's brand-new Columbia Technical Center in Vancouver. Since Barrett lost his job at Oregon Steel Mills, he's considered every conceivable opening.

Richard Barrett: "From sales, to you name it, I was looking at anything that was paying a good amount of money, and then finally I decided, I need to specialize in something. That's what the economy is going towards. They need people who are going to specialize in something that's going to benefit their company."

Richard Barrett is far from alone. 

Clark County's 14 percent unemployment rate has driven a 45 percent increase in the college's enrollment. Many of those workers-turned-students are early in their careers, like Barrett.

Classmate, Mitchell Uskoski is 22, and was working on power lines until last fall. He really liked the job.

Mitchell Uskoski: "We had a big storm, you know poles snapped off, it was great – it was probably a week after I'd started, it was like nothing I'd ever seen. We were cruising around – of course, I was the grunt on the ground – but I felt like I was part of bringing people back their power, you know. I don't know – it's like nothing else. It makes you feel like your job really means something."

Both Richard Barrett and Mitchell Uskoski are finishing up a one-year certificate program at Clark College. It's designed to prepare graduates for stable, hands-on work at an electric utility.

Jim Malinowski: "It's not going to be outsourced, that's right."

Jim Malinowski now runs the program. He's retired after years at Pacific Gas & Electric in California. He says it's reliable employment. But the work is changing.

Malinowski: "When I started with the company, with PG&E, we had almost no monitoring control equipment. Everything was manual. We had analog meters and panel switches. Now, you can sit in a control room, and operate devices from a computer. The modern control room looks nothing like the old-style control rooms."

Malinowski says he started the program at the request of Bonneville Power Administration – because the agency couldn't find enough qualified workers.

So, now, the holy grail for finishing the Power Utilities' class is an apprenticeship job at BPA. Thirty-three year-old Richard Barrett learned a few weeks ago, he got a spot.

Richard Barrett: "It's a year-long process from the time you start your application to the interview process, to actually getting accepted. So I was extremely excited, not only for me, but for my family."

Linemen, or sub-station operator jobs, like Barrett is getting don't require a college degree. But journeymen earn $35 per hour.

Barrett could've decided to spend the next four years in college. Instead, he'll spend that time as a paid apprentice. He'll get to know well the dials and switches on these pale green walls. 

PJ LeCompte: "So we're in the operator training simulator…"

PJ LeCompte is a technical training manager with BPA, working out of Vancouver. 

He says in a good year, the agency might bring in 25 or 30 apprentices to show them how to manage a power failure.

This year, LeCompte says BPA's tight budget meant only 11 apprentices will start this summer.

And as Clark College student, Mitchell Uskoski points out, apprenticeships are hard to find in other parts of the industry as well.

Mitchell Uskoski: "Work's really slow, on the construction side, I think there's like 90 apprentices that are laid off right off. The competition is really stiff, and it's a smaller trade than your other construction trades, so 90 apprentices is quite a few."

But there's another route to training for the job. It involves less hands-on training for a job today, and maybe more classroom time that focuses on skills for tomorrow.

That's why Jim Malinowski at Clark College might advise aspiring utility workers like Uskoski to stay in school, if he can't find one of those rare apprenticeships.

He is currently working on a second year for his Power Utilities' program. One strand would focus on the more flexible and responsive electric grid of the future.

Jim Malinowski: "Utilities have very sophisticated monitoring and control systems that have to be installed and maintained. So the intent of the program would be to provide training for people to do that kind of work."

Student Mitchell Uskoski say he'd consider a second year, if it would help get him a job.

Industry trainers, like PJ LeCompte, aren't sure that it would.

PJ LeCompte: "All the utilities kind of want to be the main influence – right? It's like raising a kid, you want to be that first influence."

LeCompte says utilities want workers who know the basics and are eager to learn. But he says knowing too much can be a problem.

PJ LeCompte: "It is easier to train someone from day one, than it is to bring in someone who has a lot more training because once you learn something, it takes an effort to un-learn it."

LeCompte concedes that utility jobs are hard to get. Utility officials say many workers are old enough to retire – but haven't, because they're worried that they can't afford to.

But an economic recovery could prompt retirements, which would in turn, open a career ladder for qualified trainees.

Mitchell Usoski will have a one year certificate to show a prospective employer. He says he hope it'll help him move up.

Mitchell Uskoski: "The groundman is at the bottom of the pole, or at the bottom of the totem pole. And the lineman is kind of the king. And that's kind of where I want to be."


Tomorrow, we look at a couple in Bend who have found recession-proof businesses

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