When Rhonda Gage decided to switch careers and become a nurse, she knew she was in for a slog. A medical assistant at Kaiser Permanente in Sacramento, Cal., Gage would first have to take night classes in biochemistry, physiology and anatomy while working full-time during the day. She'd also have to finance the training, which includes two years of nursing classes followed by clinical work. But then she heard about a program overseen by the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency that would help her pay for school.
The program funded her tuition at a local community college. Plus, it covered her books, her uniforms and her state board exam, as well as a prep course for the exam. Total assistance: $3,000 (some programs will pay up to $10,000 or more).
Gage is one of a growing number of American workers who are taking advantage of government-sponsored training. Prompted by concerns about job security, a desire to get into a new field or a push to improve skills after a layoff, demand among workers for such programs has soared. Gage's training ended in 2007, but the federal government's economic-stimulus package has given states an additional $4 billion to operate these services. With the national unemployment rate hovering at about 9.6%, demand is likely to remain sky-high. Currently about 250,000 Americans are enrolled in such programs, according to the Department of Labor.
To see what types of government training are offered in your area, contact your local employment agency or visit the Labor Department's Web site, which has a list of state-run programs. You could also call the Labor Department's Employment and Training Administration (877-872-5627).
Gage fulfilled her personal ambition, acquired a secure job as a nurse in a step-down unit (which cares for patients one step down from critical care) and tripled her salary. Even with funding for her training, it wasn't easy. She worked part-time for Kaiser to help pay for her day-to-day living expenses. With the help of her employer and the financial and moral support of her partner, she made it work. "For two years, it was one hell of a roller-coaster ride," recalls Gage, 53. "I carried a backpack around with me so that no matter where I got tied up, I could pull something out and study."
But as her experience shows, putting in the time to acquire new skills can pay off.
Find a hot field
How do you make the most of a retraining program? It may sound obvious, but start by finding a field that's hiring. You want to make sure your new skills will be in demand once you enter the job market.
Gage's decision, for example, was influenced by projections that nursing will be a growing field given the aging of the baby-boomer generation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects nursing to be the occupation with the highest level of employment growth through 2018, followed closely by home health aides, nursing aides, orderlies and attendants.
Other jobs that will be in demand, according to the BLS, include accountants and bookkeepers, construction workers, computer-software engineers, and analysts in management, network systems and data communications (go to www.bls.gov/news.release/ecopro.t06.htm for more information). Of course, even with additional training, there's no guarantee you'll find a position right away. But once the economy improves, your new skills will at the very least improve your marketability.
Be your own boss
State-run programs aren't limited to training workers who want a job with an existing business. Some provide specialized schooling for those who want to become entrepreneurs.
Georgia, for example, has a program to help women entrepreneurs get environmentally friendly companies off the ground. The 36-week program, which is taught by local small-business executives, provides instruction in how to acquire venture-capital funding, draft a business plan and create a marketing campaign. To qualify for the program, you have to submit an idea for an environmentally friendly venture, such as a green cleaning business.
The training was a blessing for Tammie Spivey. A marketing representative for a managed-care company, she was laid off in May 2008. So the 41-year-old resident of an Atlanta suburb decided to try to turn her interest in organic foods into a business. Once she heard about Georgia's program, Spivey pitched the idea of an organic restaurant with no fried food, and she was accepted into the course.
Her restaurant, which she has dubbed The Healthy Fork (the opposite of a greasy spoon), will offer salmon, turkey and veggie burgers on whole-wheat buns, with baked sweet-potato fries on the side.
Spivey, who is in the process of acquiring funding, is also planning to offer a drive-through window, typically found only at fast-food joints. "I see it as Whole Foods meets McDonald's," says Spivey, who has her Web site up and running (www.thehealthyfork.com). She hopes to open the restaurant in 2011.
The training, which required Spivey to take classes three mornings a week, provided her with business basics, such as how to craft an introductory letter and write a biography, which are often necessary when you seek funding. Spivey expected to obtain an education, but she also tapped into a network of women entrepreneurs from whom she could gain experience and even form business relationships. While pursuing her new venture, she's made ends meet by working as a contract photographer.
If you're interested in being your own boss and your state doesn't offer such a program, you have other options. For example, you can get advice in person or online from your local branch of Score (enter your zip code into "Find a Score office near you" on the home page). Score, which has more than 12,000 counselors, is a nonprofit partner of the Small Business Administration.
Nail down your finances
Particularly if you're training for a new job after a layoff, you need to make sure you can keep your head above water financially. In addition, you may have to rejigger your benefits to maintain health-care coverage.
Ideally, start your training at night while you're still collecting a paycheck and health benefits. If that's not an option, see whether your employer will allow you to keep your benefits if you maintain a certain number of hours during your training, as Gage did. If you've lost your job and you worked for a company with at least 20 employees, COBRA rules entitle you to up to 18 months of continued health-insurance coverage under your company's group plan. But the price tag is steep: You'll have to pay the entire premium with no employer subsidy. If you're healthy, it may be cheaper to buy your own insurance. You can compare rates at www.ehealthinsurance.com. You could also check with a local agent by searching www.nahu.org.
In a perfect world, you'd keep your finances in order all along and have a cash cushion in case the worst happens. David Mills already had a solid financial base when he started his own business. A computer-aided-design specialist, Mills lost his job at the Fisher-Price toy company in November 2008 after 37 years -- and just four years before he'd hoped to retire. At first Mills, who is now covered by his wife JoAnne's health insurance, was shocked by his fate. Fortunately, he had beefed up his financial foundation before the layoff because he was nearing his expected retirement date. He paid off his mortgage and gradually upped his 401(k) contributions to 15% of his salary.
Then he heard about a New York State employment-assistance training program, which helped him launch his own computer-aided-design business. Mills says the 26-week program, which offered instruction in crafting a business plan as well as practical advice on how to handle taxes, insurance and other financials, was as time-consuming as a regular 9-to-5 job.
He learned how to tap into the business networking site LinkedIn and has since used its online design groups to find clients for his company, BKJ Digital Design and Development. The company, which Mills describes as "art to part," converts two-dimensional drawings into three-dimensional CAD models. The firm serves clients ranging from manufacturers of plastic products to design consultants.
The company is profitable, but Mills, who lives in Buffalo, N.Y., is luckier than many entrepreneurs: Not only was he on a sound financial footing when he was laid off, he got a year's severance. Plus, he started collecting pension payments from Fisher-Price. It was almost as if he had a Plan B all along. And he says that being out of the rat race and doing what he really wants to do has given him more creative energy. "Now I'm not worrying about corporate life," says Mills, who turned 60 in June. "I'm like an athlete -- the less I worry, the better I play." For some workers, switching careers can be a godsend.