After more than a century of making cars, the U.S. state of Michigan is retraining thousands of unemployed workers for new careers now that many of their jobs may be gone for good.
The question is whether jobs can be found for retrained workers in the state with America's highest unemployment rate.
As the unemployment rate has risen, that has given us fewer opportunities to place people in jobs, said Douglas Stites, head of Capital Area Michigan Works in Lansing, which provides job training for workers. At some point, we're going to be training people to wait for demand to come back.
We've either crossed that line, he said, or we're crossing it now.
Michigan's official unemployment rate hit 15.2 percent in June, easily higher than any other U.S. state. The next highest was Rhode Island with 12.4 percent. The national rate in June was 9.5 percent.
Michigan got a head start on the recession. Whereas it began for the United States as a whole in December 2007, the decline of the auto industry and other factors cost Michigan more than 335,000 manufacturing jobs between December 2000 and December 2008.
The auto sector's decline accelerated in 2008 as the market for cars plummeted, forcing two of America's once-vaunted Big Three automakers -- General Motors and Chrysler Group -- into bankruptcy this year.
GM, Chrysler and Ford Motor Co have laid off tens of thousands of workers. A ripple effect has hit auto suppliers and employers throughout Michigan's economy -- it is estimated that every auto job lost takes five others with it.
'NOTHING OUT THERE'
The unemployed in Michigan have flocked to retraining programs. The state's No Worker Left Behind program was launched in 2007 and 80,000 workers have so far been retrained.
Andy Levin, deputy director at Michigan's Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, which is in charge of the program, said the state's unemployment rate, including underemployed workers, was actually 22.5 percent.
The biggest number of workers -- 38 percent -- retrain for healthcare sector jobs, Levin said. Training for green jobs touted by President Barack Obama in the renewable energy sector is also popular, although jobs are in short supply.
As of last November, we've had three times the usual number of people visiting our offices, said John Bierbusse, executive director of Michigan Works for Macomb and St. Clair counties near Detroit. Demand is so high we have a two-month backlog.
Former auto workers like Matthew Derra have signed up for courses. Derra, 41, lost his job at struggling auto supplier American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc in July 2008. Now he is taking an associate degree in renewable energy and wants to find a job maintaining wind turbines.
There's nothing out there in my old field of work, he said. There will be thousands of people out there chasing every job, but I have to try.
I can't just sit home and watch television, he added.
In a July 14 speech in the Detroit suburb of Warren aimed at promoting a $12 billion initiative to boost community colleges, Obama stressed that the jobs people like Derra had lost were a relic of the past.
The hard truth is that some of the jobs that have been lost in the auto industry and elsewhere won't be coming back, Obama said. They are the casualties of a changing economy.
50 JOB SEEKERS FOR EVERY JOB
The scale of Michigan's task is daunting.
The No Worker Left Behind program's talent bank recently had 1 million resumes online with about 18,000 vacant jobs posted, Levin said. That means more than 50 workers for every available job.
We have to upskill our entire state in order to fill the jobs of the future, he said.
Ken Stahovec, 46, spent 23 years working as a designer and project engineer for various auto suppliers and automakers, before losing his job in July 2008. He is now working toward an associate degree in renewable energy technology.
Whenever a green job is posted, a zillion people go after it, he said. Competition will be fierce, but I just have to keep plugging away at it.
People like Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero ask where jobs will come from for retrained workers, adding he was disappointed when Obama said some manufacturing jobs were lost forever.
What concerns me is when I hear people talking about manufacturing in the past tense, Bernero said. If we want wind turbines, someone here should manufacture them.
I worry all we're doing with retraining is giving people a degree and a bus ticket out of Michigan, he added.
Bill Bryce of the workers' rights group Jobs With Justice said retraining people for jobs that do not exist in Michigan was mere folly.
The bottom line is that without an expanding economy, a lot of this is just utopian fantasy, he said.
(Editing by Howard Goller and Peter Cooney)