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Out of Work, Back in the Classroom

Black Voices News, News Report, Chris Levister Posted: Mar 02, 2010

Beverly Steward Michaels was a student at Riverside Community College in 1989 but left to pursue her passion singing in a traveling gospel band.

For the next 12 years she toured the country performing at churches, weddings and civic functions. In 2003 stricken with severe arthritis she returned to the Inland Empire and worked for a small music production company. Michaels was laid off last year as the economy tanked and the company was forced into bankruptcy.

On the campus of Riverside City College, the divorced mother of three finds herself in a place she never thought shed be again back in the classroom.

Adult students at Riverside Community College District's Norco campus are among the thousands of 'economy ravaged' who have flocked to the state's community and technical colleges as the demand for workforce retraining soars.
I felt confident about my job prospects until I interviewed for a job at a music production studio full of pubescent computer nerds. Talk about feeling like a product of the dark ages.

Now at age 51, shes back at RCC to earn her associates degree in computer aided music and audio production. She wants to learn computer software and digital technology skills. She plans to open a business.

Community and technical colleges are bursting at the seams with students like Michaels, many of them laid off workers seeking degrees, certificates or job training.

Restricted admission at four-year colleges coupled with an 11.9 percent unemployment rate have led to record numbers of students being placed on waiting lists or turned away.

The state-funded worker retraining program in which laid-off workers can attend community or technical colleges to learn skills for another field has fueled much of the growth on area campuses. But the high demand means many colleges have spent all of the money allocated to them for the program.

Dr. Brenda Davis, president of RCC Norco campus says the increased enrollment has left colleges scrambling to add capacity in an era of shrinking state funding. She said institutions are employing a variety of tactics to meet the high demand for workforce retraining everything from larger class sizes to new online courses.

We are seeing unprecedented enrollments. Its been difficult. The faculty, instructors, and professors have really tried to go out of their way to accommodate more students, Davis said.

Even though, ultimately, we may not get paid for those students.

The Riverside Community College District, which includes Riverside City College and newly accredited colleges in Norco and Moreno Valley, registered nearly 40,000 students last fall, about 10 percent more than 2008. At the same time, the district had to cut about 1,000 classes to help overcome a $16.5 million budget gap.

California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott called the latest cuts the deepest and most troubling in the history of California community colleges. With booming enrollment from four converging forcesrecord high school graduates, redirected four-year students, returning veterans, and the newly unemployedthe budget will significantly constrain access and limit essential student services, he said.

An undetermined amount of federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds have provided some degree of aid to help colleges mitigate the state cuts.

Michaels thinks she has a good chance of qualifying for the federally funded Worker Retaining program that covers tuition and books for people who lost their jobs.

Im not getting any younger. I dont have a steady income so the thought of returning to the classroom is pretty scary.

Were seeing older adults with bachelor and masters degrees. Many of these students have been top producers in the workplace for decades. Then to get that lay off notice, now what do you do. Most of them dont know, said Davis.

Our job is to use every available resource to help these students map out a new career path give them a compass, retrain and return them to the workforce. Historically when the economy goes south community colleges become first responders. This is the time our community needs us the most.

She said one of the RCCDs biggest challenges is finding cost effective ways to get retraining information into the hands of people who are laid off, who in many cases no longer read a newspaper, cant afford cable or Internet access, dont have a phone, have lost homes, unemployment benefits and have been away from the classroom sometimes for decades.

The District is working with the Riverside County Department of Economic Development and the Workforce Investment Board along with other federal and state and agencies. A diverse team of highly skilled career counselors serve students at three campus career training centers.

Weve protected core English, mathematics and science disciplines but at the same time we are adding sections to assist returning veterans, said Davis.. Weve beefed up online learning, advanced computer training, nano and green job technology.

She points out that not all jobs of the future require college degrees. Some of the certificate programs like advanced manufacturing positions are just six months to a year. Students are able to get through those programs, get proper certification, find jobs and get back to working.

Getting back to work is the goal of millions of unemployed Americans. Along the way, some like Beverly Steward Michaels have come to view their layoffs in a different light.

I know it may sound crazy, but getting that pink slip has been a blessing. It forced me out of my comfort zone, she said.

Its a little bit like a television series. Stay tuned to see how it all works out. But, unlike a soap opera, this has really big consequences.

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