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Workers get retrained to improve employability

Published: Friday, March 8 2013 6:30 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Michelle Linder was in a quandary. She was 38 years old and working as a secretary for Intermountain Healthcare but longed to find a new career.

The University of Utah alumna had a bachelor’s degree in English and psychology. But "there was nowhere to go with that,”  she said.

Her boss at the time encouraged her to apply for a specialized training program in conjunction with Salt Lake Community College called the “cohort program” that would put Linder on the path to becoming a registered nurse.

“It was like a shortcut into nursing school instead of getting on a long waiting list,” Linder said. “I continued working as a secretary and went to nursing school at the same time.”

Linder, now 45, praises the program, part of innovative collaborations that are retraining people and getting them either back into the workforce or pushing toward new jobs as the economy bounces back from recession.

Salt Lake Community College programs, which also include Short Term Intensive Training and Custom Fit Training, focus on worker retraining or skills enhancement.

Custom Fit serves for-profit businesses within Salt Lake County, while the intensive training program uses state money to provide occupationally specific training for employees or for individuals seeking new career opportunities, including human resource management, machine training and employment law for managers.

The growth of the program is significant. The number of companies utilizing the Custom Fit program has grown from 66 firms serving 1,448 employee or prospective employees in 2008 to 163 firms serving more than 2,000 employees last year. The expense of the class to the individual or company depends on the actual cost of the class, said Shannon Scott Strickland, Manager, Custom Fit Training & Short Term Intensive Training.

If a class costs $1,000, the company or individual pays approximately 50 percent to 60 percent and the program pays the remaining portion, she said.

Global mining exploration firm Boart Longyear has utilized Custom Fit for about 18 months, putting each of its 100 employees through specialized efficiency training. The company reports it has saved $2 million in improved efficiencies and reduced its costs by $500,000. 

“It’s a big deal for us to have access to this kind of training,” said Drew Butler, vice president of expansion at Boart Longyear. “Each year, the bar is getting higher with workers doing better and better overseas, so regular training and education allows us to stay competitive. It (also) makes Utah more competitive.”

It also provides paths for individuals both in and out of the workforce.

“It was kind of 'grow your own nurses' out of the employees that you already have,” Linder said.

Her employer was “just great” about allowing her to have flexibility to meet her academic and clinical obligations as she pursued her new nursing career and met her  employment responsibilities.

“When I would have clinical days, they would let me take that day off and work longer (on other) days,” she said.

Linder completed the two-year program five years ago and fulfilled a dream she had since she was a teenager of becoming a nurse.

Intermountain paid for the program in its entirety, she said, with the commitment that she would work there for at least two years following successful completion of the program.

“The Intermountain/SLCC program was beneficial in helping meet the demand for nurses at those facilities and helped many employees transition into nursing careers,” said Lisa Peters, Student Programs Manager for the Urban Central Region of Intermountain Healthcare.

Intermountain was among three hospital groups that participated in the cohort program, along with the University of Utah Hospitals and Iasis Healthcare. Each company had its own standards for participation.

“It’s nice for the hospitals because they have proven employees who then become nurses and continue to work for the (companies),” said Judy Scott, associate dean for the Division of Nursing at Salt Lake Community College. “It’s great for the students because they have a (career improvement) opportunity. It’s a multiplicity of wins across the board for everybody.”

Scott said students who join the program range from truck drivers, dishwashers, certified nursing assistants, to secretaries — all seeking the chance to change their lives.

While some people choose a major career shift, others want to bolster their qualifications in their chosen career field.

Lecia Thornton, 56, of Eagle Mountain had worked as an office manager for a small company for 16 years performing various functions, including human resource administration. Initially the company had fewer than 10 employees, making her job relatively simple, but it soon ballooned to 120 workers in a one-year period — creating an entirely different administrative environment.

She was asked to become the human resources manager for the firm.

“I did not know all the rules and regulations,” Thornton said. “I had not gone to school for human resources.”

In 2005, she was able to enroll in the Custom Fit training program at the college and became certified in human resources management. The 12-week course required her to attend class one night per week for four hours each evening.

That training eventually brought her to her current job as a human resources administrator at Moog Medical Devices Group in Salt Lake City. She said without the certification, she would not be in the position she is in now.

“I don’t have (a bachelor’s degree), but I do have my professional in human resources certification and a number of years of experience,” the married mother of four said. She said being able to further her career at this stage of her working life was a “big weight off (her) shoulders.”

Both Linder and Thornton received training through Salt Lake Community College, but such programs are offered at other institutions as well.

The Utah Department of Workforce Services offers information on job-training programs at traditional and for-profit colleges as well as state applied technology schools. See jobs.utah.gov/services/training.html for information.

Thousands of Utahns have received training, including a high of nearly 11,500 in 2009, but the numbers have declined over the past three years.

“We have some people who need basic training and some who have been displaced out of their occupation that need retraining because there is no labor market to go back to,” said Karla Aguirre, Department of Workforce Services director of Program and Policy in Workforce Development. The average cost of training is between $2,500 and $3,000 per person, she said.

She said that despite robust demand, federal funding for training programs has declined over the past several years, making it tougher to help many people in search of career assistance.

“When people can’t find jobs, they think the only thing they can do is go back to school,” Aguirre said.

According to the University of Utah’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, enrollments at SLCC and other institutions of higher education climbed during the economic recession as workers looked for ways to increase their marketability.

“This is absolutely evidence of people retooling during the recession,” said Pam Perlich, BEBR senior research economist.

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