Jump-Starting an Upgraded Workforce

Maxine Gomez is one of more than 20 laid-off workers who are now updating their skills at Baruch College with the help of new
government grants, which also aid students on other campuses.

New government grants and University career-training programs are turning today's job-seekers into valuable professionals.

Sandy Lee was a director of business operations for UBS in Weehawken, N.J. Maxine Gomez worked in the company's Manhattan office as a quality-assurance supervisor in equity research. Kevin Naughten was a systems analyst at Citibank. And Larisa Kushelev worked as a payroll specialist for The Bank of New York.

Was is the key word. All were laid off during the financial crisis. They all looked for work and came to the same conclusion: The best way to find a new job was to go back to school.

When they began researching universities and courses, they were pleased to discover that they were eligible for National Emergency Grants (NEG), which pay up to $12,500 per person for tuition for job-training courses at approved institutions for work completed by December 2010. Applicants like them are eligible for part of the $11 million newly given by the U.S. Department of Labor to the state to assist laid-off employees at 31 financial institutions that range from Lehman Brothers and Commerce Bank to Countrywide Funding Corp. New York received the largest award, and an estimated 1,400 workers are expected to receive grants.

Lee, Gomez, Naughten and Kushelev all ended up at Baruch College, which was one of the first CUNY campuses to enter the program.

"I couldn't have afforded to go to school without the grants," says Kushelev, who got $1,550 to cover the PayTrain payroll training certificate course she is taking. "I'm upgrading my skills and knowledge. The course is a good tool for passing the test. It's exactly what I need at this time."

Lee, who was lucky enough to land a job as director of project management for HBO right before fall's classes began, says that "one of the key things that got me this job was the fact that they knew I had signed up for the project management professional certificate course. It opened the door for me." The grants cover the $3,000 cost of his program.

Following Baruch's lead, other CUNY campuses, including Borough of Manhattan Community College, John Jay College of Criminal Justice and City College, have grant applicants or are fielding inquiries from students who want the aid.

"This is an important program and an important opportunity because it can be used not only for continuing education but also for completing or starting a degree," says Suri Duitch, University director of adult and continuing education. "And it's a great opportunity for the University because students have a wide range of educational and employment backgrounds, and they're looking at CUNY colleges as an option."

At press time, Baruch alone had more than 20 students who were laid off after May 31, 2008 and who were receiving almost $80,000 in grant money. The grants range from $420 to $10,145 for courses in accounting, bookkeeping, payroll, project management, human resources/Society for Human Resource Management, IT skills training and real estate.

"This will be one of the biggest funders we've had," says Ann Clarkson, associate dean of continuing and professional studies at Baruch College. "It's not a performance-based program, and although the state has to approve the program for each student, it's not vocational training. There's more flexibility in this regard. It targets a population sorely in need. They don't necessarily want a degree; they want to refine their skills and go back into the market. It also allows them to network."

Gomez, who received $3,700 in National Emergency Grants when she signed up for a project management certification program, chose Baruch "because I've heard good things about it. My classes are on the weekends and at night, so if I get a job, they won't interfere. I had checked a couple of other institutions in Manhattan, but they didn't have night classes."

Naughten is using his $6,000 grant to earn a forensic accounting certificate and to take some accounting courses. "Among the top schools I looked at, only Baruch was geared up for NEG," he says. "When I looked outside CUNY, they were all asleep at the switch. Baruch made the process smooth and expeditious."

Naughten and his three National Emergency Grant peers are among some 270,000 students who have registered in 2008-2009 for the more than 4,000 adult and continuing education programs offered by the University this academic year.

The courses, which are designed to reflect the needs of each community, range from those that prepare students for careers as phlebotomy technicians and paralegals to college-prep courses for high schoolers and personal enrichment courses for seniors.

Continuing education courses are designed to be flexible enough to change on a dime, and since the Wall Street meltdown and resulting recession, CUNY's colleges have placed a greater emphasis on programs that retrain people for a dramatically different workforce.

"The changes in courses that are occurring are different at each college," Duitch says. "In general, though, we've seen an increase in the numbers enrolled in industry certification and GED courses and a decrease in personal enrichment programs, particularly those for children, because people cannot afford them any more."

The campuses do extensive research, culling information from state and national Department of Labor reports, and constantly refine and redefine programs to fit the preferences of their populations.

At Borough of Manhattan Community College, for instance, the focus has shifted toward workforce development programs. "In the last year or so, there has been a tremendous change in the way people look at continuing education," says Sunil B. Gupta, the college's dean of continuing education and workforce development. "Now, skilled individuals need retraining. This is a big role, and an important role, community colleges can play. CUNY, in general, always has been ahead in the development of workforce programs."

Continuing education is perfect for this group, Gupta says, because the courses are offered during evenings and on weekends, so students like the ones at Baruch who are getting National Emergency Grants can continue to work or look for work while they study.

When selecting courses, BMCC studies labor department statistics and projections and also elicits information from advisory boards in specialty fields like real estate. In addition, it has staffers on the boards of organizations like the Continuing Education Association of New York, which also give it valuable input on workforce trends.

"We are constantly looking for new programs and new content for existing programs," Gupta says. "We look at five or six new programs for each sector we cover and typically add two or three after we run pilots."

BMCC's workforce development programs primarily are in three areas: health care, technology and urban systems.

According to Gupta, the courses in the greatest demand are in allied health. Paralegal and real estate licensing programs as well as training programs for construction project managers and construction cost estimators, he says, also are popular. BMCC's new offerings include polysomnography technician training and an electronic medical records technician program, which launches in January.

BMCC's technology programs, Gupta says, are particularly "helpful in this competitive work environment, where certified training programs are in demand. The college addresses this need as it is a certified training center for Microsoft and Cisco and in November will become a certified Apple Academy."

But BMCC's role doesn't end when the classes do. Its state-of-the-art testing center offers a variety of high-level exams for various professions that range from car mechanic to social work. "We're looking to add more," he says.

Recently, the college's continuing education program has begun reaching far beyond its Manhattan campus. During the summer, it partnered with the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism to offer training to students from Italy and has plans to expand business programs to visiting students from China and India.

At John Jay, two students have applied for National Emergency Grants. The number of career courses has been increased, and more seminars and workshops have been added. Some of the more popular courses are EMT training and paralegal courses; and a pharmacy technician program is being considered. "For the first time, we have added two online courses - paralegal and defensive driving," says Terrance Harris, the college's director of continuing education. "This is a test, and so far it's going very well."

The college is looking to partner with more businesses and training institutes so students can be prepared for existing jobs. "In our paralegal course, for instance, we employ practicing lawyers, and we hope they see someone they want to hire; it has happened," Harris says.

But the business benefits reach far beyond getting competent employees. In some cases, employers are eligible for city tax credits of up $2,400 for hiring in certain categories.

In keeping with its criminal-justice mission, John Jay is adding a crime-scene investigation course for high school teachers and another for high school students. "We did this because high school teachers are trying to teach it, but they don't know anything about it," Harris says. "We started it this semester, and we will go full blown in spring 2010."

Regardless of which courses students take or for what reason, continuing education means just that. Kushelev, for instance, is considering taking an advanced course in Excel. "The more I know, the more power I feel," she says. "And I'm eligible for NEG funding for it, too."