June 30, 2010 at 1:00 am

Federal funding cuts will limit No Worker Left Behind

Federally supported initiative aimed to give jobless new career options

Lansing -- Michigan's unemployed were dealt another blow Tuesday when the state announced it will scale back a popular worker retraining program thousands have used to restart their careers.

Starting Thursday, new enrollment in the No Worker Left Behind program will be limited largely to those in classes and the 20,000 on a waiting list. A 39 percent cut in federal workforce money that pays for a large part of the program led to the change.

The move comes as Congress failed to break its stalemate over approval of an extension to jobless benefits on which 87,000 Michigan unemployed count. It's a devastating combination that hits home for Carol Spurrier, 58, of Chesterfield Township.

Laid off from her clerical job, Spurrier tried to get into the No Worker Left Behind program earlier this year but didn't pass the basic skills test necessary to qualify.

After spending the past eight weeks brushing up on her math skills at a Michigan Works! training session and finishing Thursday, she was optimistic about passing the test and getting approval for a fresh start in the medical field.

"I probably don't stand much of a chance now," said Spurrier, who wasn't on the waiting list.

To make matters worse, she and her husband, who is also laid off, are slated to lose their unemployment benefits in July while they still have a mortgage. They've braced for the cuts by clipping coupons, only buying sale items and selling everything they possibly can from their cameras to televisions on Craigslist.

"The whole picture just got dimmer for the unemployed," said Gregory Pitoniak, CEO for Southeast Michigan Community Alliance Michigan Works!

The No Worker Left Behind program was launched in 2007 by Gov. Jennifer Granholm to get unemployed and underemployed workers into high demand fields. The program, largely funded by federal workforce dollars, covers $5,000 a year for up to two years in tuition, enough to earn an associate degree.

In less than three years, more than 130,000 workers have turned to community colleges, for-profit institutions and other providers for retraining, besting the governor's goal of 100,000 retrainees.

At SEMCA, which serves Monroe and Wayne counties, excluding Detroit, the program's popularity made waiting lists common. Just under 3,000 people were funded for training this year, and 1,900 will be enrolled and funded for the upcoming program year. Beyond that, there's no more money to fund anyone else, Pitoniak said. Should more money become available the 500 people on the waiting list will be next priority for entry into the program.

"We are a victim of our success and a victim of the budget cuts from the feds," he said.

A question of scale

Despite the increase in Michigan's jobless rate from 2008-10, the federal funding has gone down $72.1 million over the same period, Andy Levin, deputy director for the Department of Energy, Labor & Economic Growth, said Tuesday at Lansing Community College in announcing the changes. Federal stimulus dollars have filled much of the gap, but almost all of that one-time money has been accounted for.

"It can keep going; the question is the scale of it," Levin said of the program.

Statewide, enrollment will remain around 60,000 annually, but the majority of people in training will be those in school rather than new enrollees, Levin said.

"It's very discouraging," said Jeffrey Samsa, 57, who has been out of work since February and waiting to get approval to retrain since March.

For 36 years the Clinton Township resident sold industrial products to auto-related companies. But when the auto industry went bust, Samsa lost his job and says it's increasingly difficult to find work at his age. He was counting on the NWLB program to learn the heating and cooling business at Macomb Community College.

"It's just discouraging because you've worked all your life and now you're sitting there wondering what's going to happen for the rest of your life," said Samsa, who is also concerned about his unemployment running out in eight weeks.

Current students a priority

Gregory Collier, NWLB manager of Detroit's Workforce Development Department, had 2,745 students this year enrolled in training and his first priority will be to continue to fund those who haven't finished. Next is reaching out to the 2,000 people on the waiting list. But no more waiting lists will be kept beyond Thursday.

"We can no longer put people on the wait list because we don't know for sure if we'll have funding to cover them," Collier said, noting the funding cutbacks led to staffing reductions, including caseworkers who process the students.

William Sleight, director of Livingston County Michigan Works! said about 800 unemployed workers were funded for training last year and they anticipate covering the 500 or 600 who are in school. Beyond that, the county may have money for 50 or 100 new enrollees.

Despite the decline in funding, he encouraged the unemployed to come to Michigan Works! offices and start the process for retraining. They may be eligible for federal Pell Grants that can cover the cost of community college tuition.

"We certainty don't want people to give up on the idea that training is important," Sleight said.

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