The Wall Street Journal

June 24, 2003 12:44 a.m. EDT

Jobless Workers Switch Fields
In a Scramble to Find Relief


ASHEBORO, N.C. -- Tectonic shifts in the nation's job market are playing out at tiny Randolph Community College in this small manufacturing town. Stung by layoffs at nearby furniture, apparel and appliance factories, workers are flooding the school with applications to enroll in nursing and teaching programs.

There aren't many silver linings in a national job market that has shed 2.5 million payroll positions over the past 28 months. But here's one: In a scramble to find stable jobs, many workers are flocking to industries that have suffered through chronic worker shortages in recent years.

Shortages have been forcing American hospitals, for instance, to raid developing countries like the Philippines or Jamaica for nurses. Now there are signs of some short-term relief: Enrollment in four-year U.S. nursing programs rose 12% in the past two years after falling throughout the 1990s, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. At community colleges like Randolph, applications for two-year nursing programs jumped 35% last year, says the National League for Nursing.

"It's [a job] they can't ship overseas," says Angela Freeman, a 32-year-old mother of two who is studying nursing at Randolph. She spent 13 years making upholstered furniture here until April 2002, when her employer, Klaussner Furniture Industries Inc., scaled back.

Similar trends are playing out in teaching. California has seen a 40% increase in the number of people taking teacher-qualification exams during the past two years. In New York City, 20,000 people applied this winter for a program aimed at retraining workers to become teachers, a large jump from 8,000 applicants two years ago.

Randy Rogers, 56, spent more than 20 years in sales and marketing for technology companies in California. In September 2002, when he lost his job at Lighthouse Group, a software company, he figured the industry would come back eventually. But, he says, "I can't sit around and wait forever." He's training to be a math and science teacher in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Larger trends are at play in these developments. Even as the overall U.S. economy has shed jobs during the past two years, as industries like manufacturing and technology struggled, employment in education and health care rose by 923,000. Economists say it's an example of efficient markets moving resources where they are needed. "Our labor market is much more flexible than it would be in Germany or other places," says John Silvia, chief economist at Wachovia Corp. in Charlotte, N.C.

Experts in teaching and nursing say the upsurge of interest helps, though it might not be enough to relieve all of the longer-term pressures these sectors face. And the newfound popularity brings its own problems: Colleges don't have enough faculty to train nurses even though demand for degrees is rising. So many are being forced to turn away eager students.

Peter Buerhaus, associate dean for research at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing in Nashville, Tenn., says the nursing shortage could rise to more than 400,000 jobs by 2020, after a generation of older nurses retires. In the short term, however, he and other nursing experts say they see some signs of relief. "Every time there is a recession there is a bump-up in people's interest," he says. "You are seeing people think about job security and begin to enroll in nursing education programs."

Teaching experts also welcome the new interest but say career-switchers like Mr. Rogers often suffer high burnout rates and are apt to return to their old industries once the economy comes back. "Fifty percent will leave in the first three to five years," says Mildred Hudson, chief executive of Recruiting New Teachers, a Boston-area nonprofit.

Randolph Community College in Asheboro is a window into how global trends are playing out in communities across the country. Asheboro has been hit hard by manufacturing-job losses. A century ago, large furniture manufacturers in Chicago and New York began moving their operations south to this part of central North Carolina, where labor was cheap and raw materials -- poplar, cherry and beech trees -- grew in abundance.

But now, furniture manufacturing is migrating again, this time overseas. Klaussner, until recently the largest employer in Randolph, has eliminated several hundred positions over the past three years, moving some production to China. The area also has been losing textile jobs for years.

At the two-year college, young students and middle-age workers are looking for skills that are more in demand. The number of people applying for health-occupation certification programs, for jobs such as a nursing assistant, has leapt to 674 from 105 two years ago. The school has been aggressively adding new health-care programs, like a phlebotomy certification and a radiography degree, to keep up with demand. Meanwhile, applications for early-childhood teacher certifications have nearly doubled to 93.

Laura Douglas, a college vice president, says she's been forced to cut other programs, in banking and horticulture, to keep the budget in line. Lewis Edwards, who runs the school's extension programs aimed at getting workers certified for low-level nursing jobs, says he spends a lot of time begging instructors to carry a heavier class load.

For workers leaving manufacturing jobs, the transition can be tough. Nursing-assistant jobs are abundant, and a certification is possible within 12 months. But the pay is only $7 or $8 an hour and it's grueling work. The school also trains registered nurses, who can make up to $20 an hour. That's more than most local manufacturing jobs. But it takes two years to finish that program and there is a long waiting list to get into it.

This often makes it challenging for many people to make ends meet while they're back in school without income from a job. Ms. Freeman says she has been clipping more coupons, cutting back on shopping by her 12-year-old daughter and relying on help from family.

The dilemma is especially stark for Laura Hicks, another casualty of Klaussner's downsizing. She has been back in school since January 2002. Ms. Hicks, 35, has already qualified to become a nursing assistant. If she went back to work now, she'd be making about $4 an hour less than the $11.50 she made in the furniture plant. With two more years of school, however, she can get an associate's degree in nursing and earn up to $20 an hour. But she and her husband, who drives a feed truck, have been struggling to pay their bills while she's in school. They live in a 30-year-old mobile home that had been owned by his grandmother.

"We're sort of living paycheck to paycheck," she says. Ms. Hicks has applied for federal assistance under the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act, designated for workers who lose their jobs when employers move production overseas. Nationwide, the number of people receiving such assistance rose 21% from 2000 to 2002, to 42,362. Ms. Hicks says if she doesn't get the assistance, she might have to put her school plans on hold.

Write to Jon E. Hilsenrath at jon.hilsenrath@wsj.com1

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Updated June 24, 2003 12:44 a.m.

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