Thursday, January 5, 2012

WIA opportunity knocks

Program to pay for retraining as Web master

It’s been more than nine months in the making, apparently delayed largely — in recent months anyway — by the state of Illinois’ interminable bureaucracy. But this week, the paperwork went through and I now am preparing to begin training for something that may or may not expand the possibility of continuing my career as a journalist. But ultimately I hope it will serve to open doors.

The training to become an Adobe Certified Expert begins later this month or early in February and runs about four months. The ACE certification would qualify me to work as a Web master. The class load is 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., three days a week. The program runs $4,925. I am certain there are some out there who might view this as another federal “entitlement” program. I view it as a matter of survival as I try to re-enter the workforce. By the way, I’ll never actually see a penny of the aid because the money, in the form of a voucher, goes straight to the training provider.

I need to attend classes, check in monthly with my caseworker, and ultimately pass a series of tests to earn the certification. By the way, my caseworker, who I would venture to guess is no more than half my age, is a truly compassionate person. That is an attribute whose value appears to be vanishing in corporate America. I hope her supervisors recognize what a gem they have in her.

But even as I prepare to embark on this educational venture, I’ll be looking at expanding my part-time work. The training is a fantastic opportunity, but we continue to need income. I’m making marginally too much to qualify to collect unemployment benefits, which are paltry in comparison with what I earned as a full-time journalist. Hence, I am bringing in far less cash than my family and I need to make ends meet.

That is a pressure that has been constant since I was laid off more than a year ago now but which increased significantly in September. The month before that, we used up the last of my retirement savings to keep the mortgage up to date. In September and October, my four part-time jobs assured us of enough income to make those payments. In late September, however, I learned one of those jobs would end Oct. 1, and the hours of another would be cut by three-fifths. Together, those two part-time copy editing jobs had given us 45 hours of work a week at a rate that was in the range of what I had been making before my layoff.

I wrote in this blog in late May about applying for job retraining through the Workforce Investment Act. The federal program provides thousands of dollars in funding for displaced workers like me who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

(Technically, I suppose I could be blamed for my current predicament for choosing to become a journalist in the first place, even after my Dad had offered to put me through law school. The year I graduated, the nation was in a recession, newspapers were folding, journalists were being laid off, and it took me 18 months to find my first newspaper job. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Unlike today, however, when a newspaper was gearing up to close, the employees often were given plenty of forewarning, and some papers even offered bonuses to those who stayed through the remaining weeks or months, until the final edition was put to bed. Those were better days in many respects for journalists — at least the newspapers actually valued their employees and rewarded loyalty. Still, the pay never has been great in this industry.)

Getting back on point: In February, I attended an informational meeting at the Kane County Department of Employment and Education regarding the Workforce Investment Act. During that meeting, we were walked through the application process and given a preliminary application to take home and fill out. By March, I turned in that form seeking Workforce Investment Act assistance. I was told I would be contacted by a caseworker in five weeks.

But, like many of the nation’s agencies serving the jobless in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, the Kane County Department of Employment and Education was swamped. Overwhelmed would be a better word, according to some of the people I have talked to there over the past nine or 10 months. Learning that early on helped me to be more patient through this process. The newspaper cuts of the past 10 years or so had taught my colleagues and me what it was like to be expected to do more with less. I had no desire to push or be impatient with anyone who was undergoing the same type of situation I had endured.

So I waited. When five weeks turned into six, I went to the office and left my name, email address and phone number, thinking that perhaps I had messed up the initial paperwork. I waited patiently, calling in from time to time as six weeks turned into 12. Finally, I expressed my concern with a tweet to the agency via my Twitter account, and I received a response. I received an email, then a phone call informing me of an orientation session in June.

During that session, the six or seven of us attending were told we were being fast-tracked because the wait for applicants and the workload of the caseworkers were becoming ridiculous. But as part of the price, we were under the gun to put together all our paperwork under an abbreviated deadline. This required each of us to research what training we thought would uniquely suit us in preparation for returning into the workforce. The training had to be listed on a state database — in other words it needed to be a certified program — and we had to call the schools to learn the particulars about the course work we were considering.

Because my last three years at Sun-Times Media was focused on the digital end of our operations — setting up the websites each day — I looked in that direction. I love news, but I also learned that I enjoy trying to solve the puzzles website work sometimes entails. The Adobe Certified Expert program would open doors to employment both in the news industry as well as outside of it. I wanted that latter option because, as much as I love the business, the newspaper industry might be a long time recovering from the one-two-three punch of the Internet and the recessions of 2001 and 2008.

Addendum: I received initial verbal approval in August. That's about the time the state of Illinois' bureaucracy kicked in for an audit of some kind. I had been approved, but my voucher would not be issued until ... this week.

Will this be the answer for me? I do not know, although I am cautiously optimistic. I say cautiously, however, because it seems that over the past year, every time I have given my hopes too much rein, I have been hurt all the more when the cause for my optimism failed to materialize.

Regardless, this is an opportunity that I hope ultimately will put me in a better position to find a job. If a good position should pop up in the meantime, that would be nice, too. I was told when I first inquired about this particular program that should my job situation change, the school would work with me to readjust my class schedule to ensure I finish the coursework and complete the testing needed for the certification. So I would be able to finish what I start, even if I get a job.

In the meantime, I look forward to beginning the training. Today, I will be making some phone calls to find out the particulars — where and when I need to go to turn in my voucher, how to schedule my classes, perhaps meet my instructor(s) beforehand as well.

I have said for a long time that a job is far more enjoyable to me when I am learning new things. For years, that was learning to be a good reporter and photographer, then for even more years, it was learning to be a good editor. Along the way, it also involved working on nine different computer systems and their assorted applications. I found grappling with the technological changes to be fun, albeit a little intimidating at times. However, the unfamiliar can be daunting and overcoming and mastering the unfamiliar has been one of the fun parts of the journey for me.

I am no genius in that regard, but I do enjoy learning new things, and yes, from time to time over the years I have been called a nerd, a geek.

That is OK. I have been called worse things. But I’ve also been called a hard worker, a loyal worker, a compassionate and even a punny worker.

Right now, it’s the “full-time” part of being a worker that I miss.