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2009 April 19 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: Wash. Community Colleges Lack Funds for Retraining

SEATTLE (AP) — Amid rising unemployment, community colleges across Washington state are turning away laid-off workers for lack of retraining funds.

Last year $29 million was allocated to retrain 6,200 workers. But that hasn’t been enough as unemployment has risen from 4.7 percent to 8.4 percent in the 12 months ending in February, said James D. Crabbe, director of workforce education for the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

Under the program, an unemployed worker could receive to two years’ worth of tuition, transportation and books to improve their job skills or learn another kind of employment.

Shawn Oglesby, who spent most of the past decade selling mortgages and other financial products before being laid off in January, said she couldn’t find another job, so she hoped to enroll at Bellevue Community College, the state’s largest, and earn an associate degree in business, with a certificate in insurance.

She recently learned that state funding had run out about two weeks earlier, and she’d have to pay if she wanted to take the program, money she can’t afford while on unemployment.

“You’ve heard of the American dream? Well, this is the American drought,” Oglesby said. “With no education, there are no job possibilities — or very limited possibilities.”

In January through March 2008, 134 people attended Bellevue CC’s weekly worker-retraining orientation sessions, but during the same period this year there were 572, more than four times as many, said Darlene K. Molsen, the school’s workforce education director.

“It’s a very sad time, a very sad time,” Molsen said. “People are stressed. They are concerned about getting access to unemployment benefits. Their money’s gone, there’s no work, and they need to upgrade their skills for a chance of work.”

The dean of workforce education at Shoreline Community College, Alberta B. Lloyd, said worker retraining funds there ran out in January, and federal grants and other funds that were used as a temporary replacement also are gone.

“We have no more resources,” Lloyd said. “All the Puget Sound colleges are out of money. There has just been a crush of students. It’s unbelievable.”

Crabbe said unemployed people should still apply to community colleges in case they qualify for other federal or state assistance, but college officials say practically every program that could be used has been exhausted.

Seattle Central also has run out of funds, but officials at the
two-year school college have scrambled to keep providing tuition by reallocating other sources of funds, such as administrative support, to help needy students, worker retraining adviser Mary B. Lockman said.

“We are grubbing the budget down to the last penny,” Lockman said. “Somebody turned up $1,000 the other day. That can help with one student’s tuition.”

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