Career Link On The Front Lines Helping Displaced Retail, Restaurant Workers | WGLT

Career Link On The Front Lines Helping Displaced Retail, Restaurant Workers

Jul 3, 2019

Four years ago, the big story in the Bloomington-Normal economy was the closure of Mitsubishi’s manufacturing plant and the loss of 1,200 jobs. Some workers got retrained and found new jobs. Others left the area forever.

Today, it’s retail and restaurant workers that are being displaced most often and facing an equally tough choice: find another quick but fragile low-wage job or get retrained for a stable, better-paying career. Those who go back to school are finding success in high-demand fields such as CDL driving and healthcare, employment experts told WGLT.

“I hear this all the time, that these individuals wanted to go back to school at one time, and they missed that chance. They say, ‘This is the fourth time I’ve been laid off in retail,’” said Dona Nanney, business service representative and trades career planner at the Career Link office in Normal. “And you just never know what that opportunity will bring for them to go back to school and earn a sufficient wage and they’re not gonna be laid off in four months or six months or a year from now.”

WGLT regularly does stories on the monthly unemployment rate, real estate sales, economic indices, or other statistical readouts on the Bloomington-Normal economy.

But Career Link is on the front lines.

The Resource Room at Career Link's office in Normal.
Credit Ryan Denham / WGLT

The federally funded Career Link office at 705 E. Lincoln St. in Normal helps jobseekers with resumes, interviewing, and other 1-on-1 assistance. But its bread-and-butter is retraining, connecting workers with the money and other guidance they need to make a career change. Workers can get up to $22,000 in tuition and fees for retraining, plus potentially help with required books, uniforms, even mileage assistance and child care.

“Pretty much anything that’s required for the program we can look at and try to help them out with,” said Shelly Purchis, office manager and senior career planner.

Workers are finding success retraining as CDL drivers or healthcare professionals, said Kelly Schapmire, program manager at Career Link. There’s a shortage of CDL drivers, and some laid-off workers like that it only takes about four weeks to get trained and start earning money, she said. Low-income people are using retraining money to become registered nurses (RNs) or licensed practical nurses (LPNs), she said.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for them to grow and continue to grow in that field,” Schapmire said on WGLT’s Sound Ideas.

The Bloomington-Normal area’s unemployment fell to 3.3% in May—the lowest of any metro area in Illinois. But retail jobs here are getting harder and harder to come by. There were 9,100 retail positions in Bloomington-Normal in May. That’s 900 fewer retail jobs than there were just five years ago, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

When retail stores close, Career Link often responds. For example, Nanney has visited Dressbarn in Normal since the women’s clothing chain announced in May that all 650 of its stores would be closing, Nanney said. Displaced employees often ask questions about unemployment benefits, insurance options, and, of course, retraining opportunities.

Can I continue to work while going back to school? Yes, Nanney said. Some employers are even part of Career Link’s on-the-job training program, where up to 75% of a new hire’s wages are paid by Career Link for a period of time. 

Sometimes it’s hard for people to see losing a job as an opportunity. So Nanney said gives examples of past clients who’ve made it.

“There’s hope after a layoff,” Nanney said. 

Retraining is also a way to escape McLean County’s relatively slow wage growth. WGLT reported last week that local wages are rising slower than the state and national averages, including in the key Financial Services, Retail Trade, and Leisure and Hospitality sectors.

“A lot of people who are getting laid off and making way more than that, they’re looking for another job and they’re only finding something for $10 an hour. And we see a lot of frustration from people,” said Purchis, the senior career planner. “Which is why our training services are really important because it’s helping someone reach a higher wage by having more skills.”

Nanney said even some entry-level manufacturing jobs aren’t paying what Career Link considers the “self-sufficient wage” for a single person: $11.66 an hour.

Learn more about Career Link’s services on its website.

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