July 1, 2010 at 1:00 am

Assessing No Worker Left Behind

Job retraining efforts sputter in Michigan

Program lands jobs for some, but many drop out or still can't find work

Lori Wingert Wingert, 50, of Clinton Township is a success story for No Worker Left Behind. She earned an associate degree in business administration from Macomb Community College and now works at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

More than two years after Gov. Jennifer Granholm launched what may be the most ambitious job retraining program in Michigan history, 16,164 workers have found new jobs but nearly twice that many either dropped out or are still unable to find work.

The more-than-$500 million No Worker Left Behind program may be well-intentioned and well-designed, but with Michigan leading the nation in unemployment for most of the past four years, success has been limited.

Hard-hit by the economy, thousands of students dropped out of the program, some because they couldn't afford not to work. And 47 percent of those who completed training have been unable to find new jobs, according to a Detroit News analysis of the first 29 months of the No Worker Left Behind Program.

Among them are Gerald Zelek, 59, formerly a self-employed contractor who completed retraining but still finds himself in the same desperate situation as before: out of work and barely holding on to his Dearborn home.

For his one shot at a taxpayer-funded education, he chose a month-long truck-driver training course that cost $5,000. Although he's now certified to drive semi-trucks and buses, Zelek has had one unsuccessful job hunt after another.

"Maybe I have a jinx or something," Zelek said. "I feel like Mr. Goose Egg."

Unveiled by the governor in August 2007, the No Worker Left Behind Program aims to retrain 100,000 displaced Michigan workers for high-demand fields. Students are eligible for up to $10,000 in tuition over two years, enough to earn an associate degree at a community college. The landmark program was intended to give laid-off workers a free shot at higher education to transition from the assembly line to growing fields like green technology, health care and IT.

More than 38,000 of those workers are still in training. State officials announced Tuesday that future enrollment would be limited beginning today largely to this group finishing classes because of cuts in the federal program that helps pay for the retraining.

It may be too early to see the program's impact on job growth and educational attainment, but some are hopeful the figures will brighten once the economy opens up.

Record so far incomplete

Michigan's effort comes amid increasing questions about whether retraining efforts are a worthwhile investment.

"We don't know how to retrain workers who are not well-educated to begin with," said Robert J. LaLonde, an expert in work force retraining at the University of Chicago. "It (No Worker Left Behind) has to leave workers behind because the people who benefit the most in the program are those with higher skills to begin with. We don't know how to do adults with no education."

When the job placement figures improve, it will be due to the economy turning around, he said.

Nearly three-fourths of those still in the program have chosen longer-term training (more than a year), which is more than triple the national average, state leaders say.

A study released by the U.S. Labor Department in December 2008 questions, however, whether retraining helps laid-off workers get rehired.

The study of the federal Workforce Investment Act, a major funding source for the Michigan program, found "gains from participation are small or nonexistent." Comparing laid-off workers who retrained to those with similar characteristics who did not, researchers found "little evidence that training produces substantial benefits" on earnings and employment three to four years later.

Even then, "one would expect the placement rate (in Michigan) to be higher than 53 percent," said Carolyn Heinrich, director of the La Follette School of Public Affairs at University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of the study's authors.

However, she acknowledges that Michigan has an especially tough job environment.

"More time is needed to observe the outcomes before making conclusions about the program's effectiveness, particularly given that one-third are still in training," she said.

Although the federal government requires states to measure the success of work force retraining efforts, state officials admit that the methods used don't give an accurate picture of how many retrained workers are getting jobs.

State falls short in education

Even for those who found jobs in Michigan, it's unclear how much money they're now making.

Much to the chagrin of national economists eager to evaluate Michigan's results, the state couldn't provide detailed information on where the trainees are working or whether their wages are comparable to common auto industry wages of more than $20 an hour. And with 40 resumes in the state's talent bank for each job available, the governor and the state's No Worker Left Behind chief say the outcomes are strong so far.

"We are never satisfied until 100 percent find jobs," said Granholm. But she's glad for those who found work in a state that had the nation's highest unemployment rate for four years.

Traditionally, personal incomes are higher in states where residents are well-educated. Michigan, with low education levels but high incomes, defied that trend until this decade. Michigan incomes have plummeted compared to other states and education levels have yet to rise significantly.

The state's long-term success is dependent on more people with a post-high school education, Granholm says. Even if they haven't found jobs yet, those who complete the program are better prepared to assume jobs with the new training, she said. Michigan is well positioned to emerge from this recession to attract battery, solar, wind, defense and life sciences because of the training being offered. "That's priceless," she said.

Lori Wingert of Clinton Township is among those who finished the program and quickly found work.

Wingert lost her job teaching preschool children of Ford Motor Co. employees when the automaker shut its child development center. Among the first participants in No Worker Left Behind in August 2007, she was delighted to learn the program could cover the cost of an associate degree in accounting at Macomb Community College.

"I was almost 50. Could I do this?" asked Wingert, who already had an associate degree in early childhood studies.

Encouraged by her case worker and professors, she graduated in December 2008 with a 3.9 GPA. She landed a job she loves as a business coordinator for the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts.

"If I didn't have that degree, I wouldn't have that job now," she said. "I don't know what I would have done."

Andy Levin, deputy director of the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth and chief of the No Worker Left Behind program, called the job placement results impressive.

Levin believes program participants are finding jobs at a faster rate than unemployed Michigan workers as a whole. He bases his point, in part, on a national survey of 1,200 people released in May on the "Agony of Prolonged Unemployment."

Just 21 percent of those looking for work in August had found it by March of this year. Of those who found new jobs, more than half settled for wage cuts, according to the Rutgers University study. The majority of these workers did not take a training course.

"It seems like enrolling in a training program through No Worker Left Behind is definitely increasing their chances of getting a new job," Levin said.

'School doesn't pay bills'

Federal work force training dollars have been flowing to Michigan for years, but No Worker Left Behind systematically changed the program by setting statewide eligibility standards and funding limits. This differs from the national norm of letting local agencies distribute the funds by their own rules.

To be eligible for the program, someone must be out of work, receive a layoff notice, or have a family income less than $40,000. When applying through the local Michigan Works! offices, students must choose a career path in a high-demand field, and each office has a list unique to their regional job market, ranging from nurses to computer technicians.

The program has been wildly popular. Nearly three years in, more than 130,000 Michiganians have enrolled in retraining and another 20,000 people statewide were on the waiting list as of Tuesday as funds have dried up in some regions.

The "phenomenal response" to the program "defies the conventional wisdom that adult workers aren't interested in training," Levin said. "Clearly, Michigan workers see that new skills and credentials increase their ability to obtain and hold jobs."

Mike Caylor, a self-described "average Joe," is among the 14,623 who tried but dropped out.

Caylor made $26 an hour plus overtime doing engineering design work in the auto industry. Then the industry went bust and Caylor was out of work.

"I'm one of the thousands and thousands hurting," said Caylor, 53, of Clinton Township. "Guys that were making good money are making nothing. And guys that have a job are making hardly more than minimum wage. If you try to get into something new, especially at my age, it's hard to do."

Caylor, a husband and father of three, took the No Worker Left Behind tuition grant to Macomb Community College to become a computer technician. For the first time, he really enjoyed school, but the bills were mounting at home.

He landed a $9-an-hour job at a boat shop, where he pulled parts from shelves and packed them in boxes. When hours peaked in the boating season, he had to choose: school or a low-wage job.

"I needed the money," Caylor said. "I would have loved to have gone to school, but school doesn't pay the bills. ... I had no choice."

When the weather turned frosty, Caylor lost his job. He also had lost his one-shot opportunity for free tuition.

"It's terrible there are no jobs around anywhere," he said. "Just working at Kroger or Lowe's or Target ... you almost have to know someone."

He sold his family's second car. His utilities have nearly been shut off and he's counting on food stamps to eat. Caylor hopes Congress will end its stalemate and extend unemployment benefits before his run out Monday.

If not, he'll lose his home of more than three decades -- a 1,700-square-foot colonial -- despite help from President Barack Obama's refinancing plan.

"I'm on the border of losing everything I got," he said. "I'm just hanging on like a million other Americans are."

mschultz@detnews.com">mschultz@detnews.com (313) 222-2310 This project was reported with assistance from the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media.

Gerald Zelek Zelek, 59, of Dearborn completed the No Worker Left Behind ... (Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News)
Mike Caylor Caylor, 53, of Clinton Township had been taking classes at ... (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)
Juanita Collins Collins, 36, of Southgate remains enrolled in nursing ... (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
Andy Levin, deputy director of the Department of Energy, Labor and ... (Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News)