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Job retraining: Does it work?

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LAPD police officer at job fair
LAPD police officers talk with a prospective recruit at a job fair for students in Los Angeles on May 19, 2009. President Barack Obama had recently announced a new scheme to use unemployment insurance as a springboard to get laid-off workers back to work, by offering expanded access to retraining education.
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Republicans and Democrats endorse retraining for the jobless, but is it enough to help the unemployed find work?

Washington Post reporter Amy Goldstein has been researching and reporting on job retraining. On The Daily Circuit Monday, she said when politicians talk about closing the skills gap as an answer to our high unemployment numbers, that won't solve all of the problems.

"The skills gap, while it's real, is not enough to account for all the people who are having a troubled time finding work," she said. "The number of jobs that exist in this country, even if everybody rerouted themselves into those fields where the vacancies are, the number of those jobs is not nearly enough to soak up all the people who are out of work in this country and could use a job."

Goldstein has been focusing on Janesville, Wis. as a microcosm of the effects of vanished jobs on people and the places where they live. She picked the town because it was in good shape before 2007 with the oldest operating auto plant in the country. In 2008, the plan shut down two days before Christmas, leaving 3,000 people without jobs. Thousands more lost jobs at companies supplying goods and services to the plant.

"I wanted to see what happens when a perfectly normal, self-respecting, pretty economically healthy place loses the heart of its work base," she said.

Janesville's workforce is also similar to many towns across the country: Many of the workers are not highly educated, but work well-paying manufacturing jobs with union protection.

As the unemployed Janesville residents looked for jobs, some of them went to the two-year technical college in town for retraining. As Goldstein looked into the effectiveness of retraining, she found a number of roadblocks.

"It's hard to go back to being a student after you haven't been a student for a long time," she said.

Many of the people returning to school had been out of a classroom for decades and weren't particularly good students when they were in school previously. This group of incoming students also needed more remedial work than the students fresh out of high school.

About one-third of the people returning for retraining ended up getting an associate's degree, Goldstein said. That's typical of community college rates across the country. But once they received the degree, they still had trouble finding a job comparable to the one they originally lost.

"When people actually do all that hard work and get decent grades and manage to get a degree and are feeling really proud of themselves that they made it through this hard transition of becoming a student again, it can be very hard to find a job at the other end if you're in a community that doesn't have a lot of jobs to start with," she said. "Those people who do have jobs at the end of retraining often find that they're getting paid a lot less than their old jobs used to pay them."

A caller from Minneapolis said job retraining worked well for her. She was laid off in 2009, looked for work and then went back to school to take classes in a related field. 

"Those classes bolstered my skills and I started getting contracts in the new field," she said. "The classes made a huge difference in my ability to do better work at those contracts and have them last longer than they would have otherwise. That work experience then allowed me to build a new resume and make the transition into this new profession. I recently landed a good full-time job in this new profession making $8,000 more than at my last full-time job. So retraining had everything to do with my turnaround."

Have you had job retraining after being laid off? Comment on the blog.

MPR News' Alex DiPalma contributed to this report.