Feb. 3, 2012
BOSTON — The new unemployment figure released Friday morning — 8.3 percent — is the lowest it's been in three years. Still, that matters little to the millions of Americans out of work. While Massachusetts’ unemployment rate has been at 6.8 percent, lower than the national average, that still adds up to about 239,000 people in the state looking for work. Many of them are middle-aged.
Employment was the cornerstone of Gov. Deval Patrick’s Jan. 23 State of the Commonwealth address — specifically, fixing the community college system to help retrain workers with new skills. It sounds easy. But sometimes it's not.
Trying to gain new skills without college
Andreas Rodriguez got laid off from his job as a loan officer for a nonprofit home-buying organization last October. Rodriguez has established a daily routine. First he goes through the bills to see what needs to be paid first. Then he goes online where he searches for jobs and writes to headhunters.
But he knows that even with 17 years of experience, being 51 years old doesn’t make the job search any easier.
"There are millions of young graduates that come out of school," he said. They don't have major expenses so they can work for less money, and "they have all the technology and skills that maybe I don’t have."
Like many people his age, Rodriguez has a mortgage, a car payment, health insurance premiums and child support for his two teenage sons. With all his obligations, he’s barely getting by. He's thinking of trying to modify his mortgage payment and selling his car.
And Rodriguez is not enrolling in a community college. He thought he couldn't afford another expense. Instead, he spends time getting job counseling at Career Source, the state-run career center in Cambridge.
Career Source director Linda Rohrer said almost half of their clients are in the 35–54 age range. "If you look at trends, in the older end of that range, it just takes a little longer" to get work, she said. She recommended persistence: "If you make a full-time job out of finding a job, people are finding jobs."
Taking the community college route
One way to find a job is to update your skills. While politicians talk about fixing the state’s community college system, Mike Williams, 41, is already enrolled at Bunker Hill in his second semester of the Patient Care Technician program.
Williams was laid off in July 2010 after 15 years working sales in the printing business. He’s always been interested in health care, and after several years taking care of ailing family members, he decided to make a profession out of it. "I said, I’ve got to make this happen somehow. It was another godsend to get laid off. I knew it was the right time," he said.
Williams has financial aid for the program. He's is slated to start an internship at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center next week and hopes to work as a certified nurse technician while doing the nursing program at Bunker Hill. During this time, his wife is bearing most of the financial responsibilities, including the couple's mortgage, and is also going to grad school.
"It’s tough for me," Williams said of the arrangement. "I feel like I’m a burden. She’s out there working 10 hours a day and going to school at night. And I’m like … how do you do that? Even though there’s no kids, it’s important to me to be the man in the marriage and to give her the opportunity to pursue her dream."
What's the solution?
In Patrick’s State of the Commonwealth address, he proposed consolidating all 15 community colleges with the state Board of Education overseeing all budgetary and leadership decisions. The goal of the proposal is for community colleges to provide the right training and education so that people can fill the needs of local employers.
But some may argue that people in desperate need of a job don't have time for retraining. Take Rodriguez. Is he interested in health care?
"I’ve been thinking about that," he said, because he thinks workers are always in demand there. "I’m willing to take training on any type of that field. And I know it’s an opportunity to grow."
However, he added, "I’m not thinking of growing right now. I’m thinking of stabilizing." And with his bills, he didn't think community college was an affordable route to a job.
Still, Rodgriguez remained optimistic. "I think this year is not going to be easy but I hope next year and the future will be better," he said. He hoped to get some training and the skills that he needs by the end of 2012 or the beginning of 2013 — even without community college.
What do you think of the governor's community college proposal? Are you thinking of trying it yourself? Let us know in the comments.
Sign-up for WGBH News updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.