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A surprise for America’s many career switchers: They need to go back to school

Rapid change in work means a need for more training, even in jobs that didn’t previously require it

As the silkscreen printing company where she’d worked for five years became more and more short-staffed, Vanessa Moody found herself putting in 60 hours a week, starting at 6 a.m. on weekdays and including Saturdays.

That left the single mother little time to spend with her 7-year-old son, whose grandparents watched him while she worked.

“We only had Saturday night to hang out and Sunday to do things,” said Moody, who is 32. “And he’d to say to me, ‘Why is your boss so mean?’ ”

The last straw was when Moody asked for a $2 raise above the $18.50 an hour she was making and the boss said no. So she joined the legions of Americans quitting their jobs.

That’s when Moody realized something else she shares with many of those other workers who want to switch careers: She’d need more education to get a new one.

Moody was recounting her story at a noisy training center where she was in her third day of a three-week, 120-hour Southern Maine Community College course in welding, plasma-cutting, grinding, blueprint-reading and technical math. Her goal: to land an interview for a job at the General Dynamics-owned Bath Iron Works. Pay at the shipyard typically starts at around $22 an hour before overtime, often rising to more than $27 an hour after six months, with generous benefits including paid time off and pensions.

“I’m just looking forward for the opportunity to make my future better. That’s all I’m looking for in a new job, is knowing that I’m not going to get stuck again,” Moody said during a break, still in her welding hood and thermal gloves. Red plastic protective curtains behind her lit up with the bright white flares of high-tech welding torches as other students practiced their newfound skills on hunks of metal held in clamps.

For years, economists have been warning that more and more people hoping to switch careers would need to get additional education to go from one workplace to another — even in industries such as manufacturing that have not always previously required it. Now that prophecy is coming true, to the surprise of many of the record number of Americans quitting their jobs.

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There was a time when people could walk into a manufacturing facility like a shipyard and start work the same day. Automation, computer-aided design, 3D printing, modular construction and precision machining have changed that. Today, Moody’s three-week course is among the shortest postsecondary training some advanced manufacturers require.

Maine is like a laboratory for this. Its population is the oldest in the country, and it’s older workers who often need retraining in order to change jobs — though labor economists say that, eventually, almost everybody will. And Maine is gradually seeing its economy shift from agriculture and the low-tech manufacturing of products such as shoes and paper to advanced manufacturing and information services, a trend that’s similar to changes happening in many other places.

Maine has also done something few other states have — it asked its unemployed residents why they were having trouble getting jobs. The top reason, according to a survey of more than 2,600 jobless people by the Maine Department of Labor: They didn’t have the skills required by employers who are hiring.

“The story in Maine echoes all over the country, but Maine is a great place to tell it,” said Jane Oates, a former assistant U.S. secretary of labor and president of the advocacy group WorkingNation. “You used to be able to walk into a paper manufacturing plant and you had a job. Now people are finding that employers aren’t impressed just by their work experience and work ethic. And when you look at an older state like Maine, they’re the people most susceptible to this feeling of ‘Time has passed me by.’ ”

Workers over age 45 in particular — who make up 40 percent of the long-term unemployed — are much more likely to land new jobs if they get additional education than if they don’t, in which case they stay unemployed for much longer, according to research funded by McKinsey & Company, Microsoft and others; it found that three-quarters of hiring managers said they’re more likely to hire over-45s with relevant training or educational credentials than with only work experience.

“Everybody who’s going through this is mortified,” Oates said of older workers suddenly finding that they need new skills to change jobs. “They’re embarrassed. They think it’s just them. They need to see that this is a common occurrence in the workplace now.”

Maine’s community colleges last month announced that they would spend $60 million on short-term low- or no-cost training for people who want to change careers or move up in their existing jobs.

This is an issue far beyond Maine, however. In heavily industrial Michigan, for instance, most of the state labor department’s “Hot 50” list of fastest-growing careers require postsecondary education.

Where nearly half of American workers in manufacturing as recently as 1991 had only high school diplomas, now about the same proportion have bachelor’s degrees, and another 27 percent have other kinds of postsecondary credentials, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce reports.

The mismatch between applicants’ skills and employers’ needs has become more sharply evident as record numbers of people quit their jobs and search for new ones.

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Resignations are up by two and a half times over where they were near the start of the pandemic, according to data from the Federal Reserve. Nearly 4.3 million people walked away from their jobs in August, the most recent period for which the figure is available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics — “astronomically high numbers,” said Ron Hetrick, senior labor economist at the job market analytics firm Emsi Burning Glass.

Chantell Marie worked as a cashier and a substitute teacher before managing a phone store in central Maine for four years, hardly ever taking a vacation. When she was laid off and then offered her job back a few days later, she thought things over and turned it down.

“I said, ‘I know what I brought to your table. I’m going to bring it to somebody else,’ ” said Marie, who is 44. “And then I went home and cried and wondered what I was going to do next.”

Marie’s grown children talked her into going back to school to learn to weld the scrap-metal sculptures she likes to make. Before long, a recruiter from a trailer manufacturing company was after her; she was hired before she even finished her nine months of training, working weekends while taking classes on the weekdays to earn a litany of certifications.

“A lot of jobs now want somebody with experience. You can’t get experience without a job. So by getting the certifications, it at least gets your foot in the door,” she said.

Her much younger classmates gave Marie the nickname “Flash” for the flash cards she always used in blueprint-reading and technical math class. “I’ve been out of school for longer than you’ve been alive,” she said she’d shoot back.

Now Marie is a quality control inspector, her hair tied back with a bandana and a two-way radio strapped to her hip as she makes the rounds of the trailer factory in Winslow, Maine, with a ready tape measure to check on welds.

“If you’re perfectly happy working at Dunkin’ Donuts and that’s what you aspire to, you don’t need additional training. But I wanted something different. I wanted a career. Nobody wants to work the front desk at the hotel. Nobody wants to be the hostess at the restaurant any more.”

Nearly half of American adults consider themselves underemployed and underpaid or not fulfilling their potential, according to a survey by the educational technology company Jenzabar. More than one in three want new careers.

But Americans are also frustrated with the training and education that’s available to them to get new work. Eighty percent think traditional colleges and universities are too expensive for this purpose, the Jenzabar survey found.

All varieties of postsecondary providers together offer a confusing array of nearly a million kinds of credentials, according to the nonprofit organization Credential Engine. And the government provides little help for people trying to find their way; the United States spends less on coordinated workforce development, measured as a proportion of its gross domestic product, than any industrialized country but Mexico. What federal funding exists has been repeatedly cut.

“We don’t have training. We just don’t do it,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown center. Except at poorly funded community colleges, he said, “the higher education system resists it. They look down their noses at it.”

Estimates for what it would cost to fill this void vary, from $70 billion a year, including $10 billion for career navigation and counseling, according to the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, to $80 billion a year, based on an estimate from the Campaign to Invest in America’s Workforce, to $95 billion, according to an unreleased analysis by the Georgetown center. There’s some money proposed for this purpose in the Biden administration’s Build Back Better bill, which remains in flux.

Meanwhile, companies are reluctant to invest in training new employees, since 58 percent believe their workers will stick around for less than 10 years, according to the consulting firm Deloitte.

“On-the-job training is something that existed 50 and 100 years ago and for some reason we got away from it,” said WorkingNation’s Oates.

That leaves workers largely to reskill themselves.

“You don’t even know where to start to get some of the experience they’re asking for,” said Shantel Ahearn, who at 21 has already worked for her mother’s shellfish company, a paving contractor and a McDonald’s; only there did she learn about the Southern Maine Community College training program, from some of the workers at the shipyard who came in for burgers when their shifts were over.

Adam Malcolm previously sold phones at a Walmart in Bangor and now works as a supervisor at a drugstore but wants to become an electrical engineer; he’s finished an associate degree and is now continuing his studies at the University of Maine, for which he’s already borrowed $30,000, in the hope of getting a job in the electric utilities industry.

“It was a nightmare to figure out,” said Malcolm, 29. “I had absolutely no idea that it was going to be this difficult and this financially cumbersome.”

Malcolm also worked for a while assembling circuit boards for a medical products company and liked it, but discovered “there was no advancement unless you had some sort of degree.”

If people want to switch to better jobs, he said, “they need to understand they almost have to have an adviser just to navigate the career change. That’s a challenge we need to make people more aware of.”

Employers are adding to the problem by exaggerating some of the need for education, critics say, a trend that began during the last recession, when there were plenty of applicants to choose from. The share of job postings that required a bachelor’s degree or higher rose by more than 10 percentage points during that recession, research at Northeastern University found.

A Harvard Business School study showed that employers in the fastest-growing industries increasingly won’t consider applicants without bachelor’s degrees, which particularly affects Black and Hispanic workers who federal data show are less likely than whites to have one.

A few employers are now stepping up to help prospective workers get the education they need.

Bath Iron Works provides the space in Brunswick where the community college runs its training program, which instructors say has lately been attracting more workers in their 40s and 50s and more women; the company pays a $500-a-week attendance incentive to the students in it and guarantees them job interviews. With six Navy destroyers under construction, another six under contract and a huge wave of workers nearing retirement, the shipyard needs 1,500 new workers by the end of next year, on top of the 1,700 it has hired so far this year, according to a company spokesman.

Pratt & Whitney, which employs 2,000 people at a 1.2 million-square-foot former athletic shoe factory in North Berwick, Maine, where it now makes engine parts for passenger airplanes and the F35 joint strike fighter, needs 150 new entry-level workers at the site by June, a company official said. New hires spend six weeks in initial training and as much as another six months learning on the job to run machines the company says cost as much as $1.5 million each, which mill and grind parts to specifications within the thousandths of an inch.

The company also runs a three-year apprenticeship program for prospective managers in collaboration with nearby York County Community College through which participants earn associate degrees and get 8,000 hours of training on the job. Pratt & Whitney has similar partnerships with community colleges near its facilities in Florida, Connecticut and Georgia.

Miles Spalding started in the Pratt & Whitney apprenticeship program at the start of the pandemic.

“I knew it was going to be a process to get into a place like this,” he said of the additional education he’s now having to get. “It was definitely overwhelming at first.”

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But he’d hit the ceiling in his job as a restaurant manager and bartender.

“I was making really good money, but the hours were crappy,” said Spalding, who is 39. He’d have “quick little snippet calls with my kids telling them good night and hear stories from my wife about what they’re doing — their first bike ride — and I missed it. And I just was getting tired of it.”

Now, he said, he gets good pay and benefits. His hours let him spend more time with his kids. He coaches his son in Little League. “It’s a complete 180,” Spalding said.

Inside Bath Iron Works, Nigel Garner, 51, is still learning his way around after starting in September. He didn’t mind having to spend the time it took to get more education after leaving his longtime job as a restaurant server, said Garner, who also took classes in building websites and fixing boat motors before settling on the training program that led him to become a pipefitter here.

“I wanted to learn something,” he said. “And this is a good thing to learn.”

More than 7,400 people work in the shipyard, which opened in 1826 as a brass and iron foundry and now builds 500-foot Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers that carry Tomahawk and surface-to-air missiles.

Workers wear color-coded hardhats depending on their jobs — riggers, crane operators, sandblasters. Welders hover over fabricated steel pieces in the 1,300-foot-long assembly building. A 400-foot crane towers over the tightly guarded complex alongside the Kennebec River; capable of lifting 300 tons, it was the largest in the Western Hemisphere when it was built in 1971. Locals call it the “candy crane” for its orange and white stripes.

Alex Nadeau, 33, is another alumnus of the training program who works on the yard. He, too, liked the training, and expects to do more of it. Today, Nadeau said, “You really got to have an attitude, like, you know, ‘I’m going to do this and I’m going to keep getting training.’ ”

Born in northern Maine, Nadeau had moved to Florida, where he worked odd jobs and in restaurants before getting work reading water meters. But he found it too hot, he said as he waited for his shift to start. “I got heat stroke.”

When he started at Bath Iron Works as an insulator and backup supervisor, he said, “For the first time, I felt like I was in a career rather than simply a job.” Nadeau and his wife have gone from living with her parents to buying a house and getting a dog. A drummer and guitarist, he’s started a band with some of his new co-workers, playing what he described as psychedelic garage rock.

As for Moody, her 7-year-old appreciates the new, shorter hours that she’s putting in at the community college training program.

“He says, ‘Oh, I like your new job, Mom,’ ” she said. “He doesn’t understand that I’m just in school.”

This story about career switching was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in collaboration with Maine Public Radio. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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For years, economists have been warning that more and more people hoping to switch careers would need to get additional education to go from one workplace to another.

“Everybody who’s going through this is mortified. They’re embarrassed. They think it’s just them. They need to see that this is a common occurrence in the workplace now.”
 

— Jane Oates, president, WorkingNation