Video: Reinventing by hitting the books

Alison
By Allison Linn Senior writer
msnbc.com
updated 3/24/2009 4:50:36 PM ET 2009-03-24T20:50:36

Growing up in a small town in Michigan, Alan Swank’s career path was clearly laid out for him: Attend vocational classes at the local high school, graduate and take a well-paying factory job.

Swank, now 49, did attend those classes, and, after an eight-year stint in the military, he did start working in manufacturing.

But now, at an age when many might be looking toward retirement, he’s embarking on a new career as an academic.

This summer, Swank hopes to complete his Ph.D. in organizational management and leadership, shutter the metalworking shop he has run for 20 years and, if things go according to plan, take a teaching job.

The change in careers will be the culmination of years of schooling that began in 2001, after Swank started to see stiffer competition from Chinese manufacturers.

“I said, ‘Things are going to change drastically. I need to prepare for this,’” he recalled. “I knew a change had to be made.”

The deep recession that began in 2007 is doing more than costing millions of jobs. It is transforming the economy and forcing many workers to seek entirely new careers. For many, that will mean moving away from blue-collar jobs and toward white-collar work, perhaps with a trip back into the classroom on the way.

“The jobs that are opening up … are not physical labor jobs. They’re jobs requiring education, skills, math ability, probably computer literacy,” said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist with IHS Global Insight.

The country has lost a net 4.4 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007, led by sectors such as manufacturing and construction. Yet at the same time a few areas have been continuing to add jobs, including fields such as health care, and social assistance jobs such as social workers and mental health counselors.

In a fast-changing economy, experts say job seekers need to be flexible because it’s hard to say where the new growth fields might be in the next 10 or 20 years.

“Very often the jobs that will get generated in the future may be in places that we haven’t even thought of, that don’t exist yet,” Gault said.

A million lost jobs
The manufacturing sector has shed more than 1.2 million jobs over the past year, extending the long decline of that industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The construction industry also has been badly bruised and has lost 1.1 million jobs since its peak two years ago amid a steep drop in residential construction and slowdown in nonresidential building.

Other fields also have suffered badly in the current downturn, including the retail industry, which has lost 608,000 jobs since the recession began, and the truck transportation industry, which has lost 138,000.

Meanwhile the health care industry has added more then 350,000 jobs over the past year as as demand for nurses and other workers continues to outpace the available work force.

“I’ve been saying this for 30 years: You can’t go wrong being a nurse or a health care practitioner,” said David Resler, chief U.S. economist with Nomura Securities.

Banking on a career in nursing
Bob Duggan of Jacksonville, Fla., agrees. Like Swank, Duggan figured he had his life path worked out for him when he graduated from college in the late 1970s with a business degree.

But after 20 years in the banking industry, Duggan said he began to worry that corporate America wouldn’t be as kind to him as he got older, more expensive and perhaps more expendable. Duggan, 54, dabbled in real estate for a while before enrolling in nursing school a few years ago, and that’s where he found his new calling.

As a man, Duggan says he’s still an oddity among nursing staffs. But the former college football player is hoping that his gender will be a selling point because he can more easily lift larger and less mobile patients.

In other ways, he says, he is similar to many of the people in his nursing classes.

“I think I represent a large segment of the population that is having to retool themselves in another way,” he said.

While some look to health care, others are banking on the government stimulus plan to create more jobs in areas such as infrastructure improvements and environmentally oriented retrofitting. Many also have high hopes for education, although that field, too, is seeing some pain as state budgets get squeezed.


Swank, whose Delton, Mich.-based manufacturing business builds parts for the automotive and aerospace industries, didn’t initially plan on pursuing a career in education. That changed when he took a class from a woman who had started out on the factory floor, moved into administrative work and eventually entered academia.

“I thought, ‘If she can do it, I can do it,’” he said.

Swank completed his undergraduate and master’s degree at a local college, and has been pursuing his Ph.D. online with Capella University.

He and his wife have continued to run the manufacturing business, albeit with a much smaller client base, and Swank also has been teaching statistics classes at a nearby university. Some of his students are blue-collar workers who, like him, are facing the demise of the career they thought they’d have for life.

“I force these poor, frightened students into using Excel,” Swank said.

For Swank, the change in careers is not without upheaval. The Michigan native may have to move away from the state he grew up in, and where two of his grown children still live and work in the automotive industry, to find work.

Swank also is realizing that competition in his newly chosen field is incredibly stiff, and full-time teaching positions are hard to come by. To make a living, he may need to piece together a few part-time university teaching jobs.

"I’ll do whatever it takes," he said.

Unskilled labor jobs disappearing
While the overall economy eventually will improve, experts see poor prospects for jobs in  manufacturing.

That’s partly because manufacturing facilities have made technological improvements so they can do more work with fewer workers, and partly because more of the work is being done overseas. Those U.S. manufacturing jobs that do remain are increasingly specialized and often employ workers whose advanced training make them more productive.

“There’s not too many well-paid, unskilled manufacturing jobs around these days,” Gault said.

Experts do expect the construction industry to rebound eventually, but they say it could take years to even approach its former size.There were about 6.6 million people working in construction as of February, a drop of 104,000 from just the previous month, according to the BLS.

“We’re going to need to resume producing enough houses to accommodate the growing population, and that’s going to be mean we’re going to need skilled workers,” Resler said.

Other sectors that traditionally have provided jobs for people without specialized skills, such as the retail industry, aren’t expected to offer as many options as in years past.

That void is creating problems for workers without any post-high school education, and increasing the value of doing some advanced training or getting a college degree.

The unemployment rate for college graduates over age 25 stood at 4.1 percent in February, a big jump from 2.1 percent a year earlier but still considerably lower than the 8.3 percent unemployment rate for those with only a high school diploma.

The unemployment rate for people with some college stood at 7 percent as of February, while the jobless rate for people over age 25 without even a high school diploma was at 12.6 percent.

In such a tight job market, some suspect that one reason college graduates are faring better is because they are taking jobs that wouldn’t normally require a four-year degree.

“The low-level jobs for which you don’t need a college degree will always be there, (but) the competition for those low-level jobs will be those people with a college degree,” Resler said.

When David Miller found out that he was going to be laid off from his job as an automotive technician, the married father of two decided it was time to hit the books, not the job fairs. He’s now back in school with the eventual goal of getting a bachelor’s degree.

Miller, who lives in Elk Grove, Calif., didn’t think college was for him when he graduated from high school. Instead, he trained to be an automotive technician, and then switched careers to work in restaurant as a kitchen manager.

The 32-year-old had gone back to being an automotive technician because the long hours of working in a restaurant meant too much time away from his family. The decision to go back to school has been hard on his family, which is relying on his wife’s job as a pharmacy technician and hasn’t always been able to pay the mortgage on time.

In addition, Miller’s wife recently was treated for thyroid cancer and has suffered from other health problems.

Still, in the long term, Miller thinks a degree will allow him to provide better for his family.

“Work experience is awesome and employers really look at it, but if you don’t have a college degree you’re probably not going to get picked,” he said.

Even in this deep recession, some are looking at their job losses as an opportunity to do what they’ve always dreamed about.

Shawn Jackson Moss was still in college when she took a job with IBM. As her career at the technology giant progressed from administrative positions to programmer, education fell to the wayside and she never completed her degree.

Moss had recently returned from a leave of absence, during which she had been working toward a degree in theology, when she found out she was getting laid off after 17 years with IBM.

Moss had always expected to work at IBM until she retired and figured theology would be more of a sideline. But faced with a choice of trying to update her skills to get another technology job or pursuing a career as a chaplain, she decided to go with the ministry.

“I always had a passion for it,” she said. “The only thing that was scary was just, ‘How am I going to eat?’”

This summer, Moss, 47, Moss is expected to graduate from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Mich., with a master’s in divinity. Her husband, who retired from the military, also is in school to complete an MBA and a master’s in health care. That means that by this summer they’ll both be job-hunting — and strapped with student loans.

Her new career may prove more rewarding, but it also has its own challenges. Moss always knew that going into theology would mean a pay cut from her previous job, and she says certain jobs, such as being a chaplain in a prison, aren’t options for her because of her age. The recession also has hit the field, so competition for new jobs is stiff.

Still, Moss and her husband figure they have a few months after graduation before they hit crisis mode.

“We’re concerned, but we’re not panicked,” she said.

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