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Published: Friday, 7/25/2003

Retraining aid could be in peril for many

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Dale Wolniewicz, 48, was unsure about his future after losing his job at the troubled Food Town supermarket chain where had had worked since he was a teenager.

Then, a hygienist at his dentist's office told him about the fast-growing field of nuclear medicine technology which is involved in diagnoses and treatment of health problems.

He plans to begin studying next month for a two-year degree in the field at Owens Community College. But it is unclear if Mr. Wolniewicz will get financial assistance from the primary taxpayer-funded program set up to re-train laid-off workers for careers in expanding fields.

Saying that $1.2 million in funding from the state July 1 was too small to deal with the county's ballooning number of displaced workers over the next year, Lucas County officials stopped accepting new people into the program that pays for college, professional school, and other training for laid-off workers.

The grant may not be enough to cover individualized training of people already admitted to the program while meeting the county's responsibility to provide job search assistance, employment counseling, and training workshops for employees at a growing number of offices and factories that are closing or cutting workers, said Eric Walker, manger of workforce development for Lucas County.

Officials of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services informed the county yesterday that they had approved $1 million in emergency funding to assist displaced workers.

But that was less than half of the $2.3 million requested by county officials June 30. Mr. Walker said he doesn't know if it will be enough to resume tuition assistance that averages $3,000 per worker.

“We will take a good, hard look at it,” said Mr. Walker, who will meet Monday with the program's policy board.

The grant sought by Lucas County represents 25 percent of the $8.8 million in job re-retraining money Ohio officials have has set aside for emergency situations statewide in the fiscal year that began July 1, said Dennis Evans, spokesman for the Department of Job and Family Services.

Cuyahoga County has also requested funds, but Mr. Evans was unsure of the amount.

State officials point out that Lucas County's initial $1.2 million grant was determined by a formula that takes into consideration factors such as the number of claims for unemployment benefits.

They also note that the grant was 26 percent more than the $897,000 received by Lucas County last year.

“Our employment rate is 8.4 percent and we've lost 12,000 jobs in the metro area the last two years,” said Mr. Walker.

“We're in a terrible situation,” added Tina Skeldon Wozniak, a member of the Lucas County Board of Commissioners that oversees the program. “I don't know if the state knows how impacted we are.”

While Lucas County has the highest unemployment rate among Ohio's six largest counties, its 19,300 jobless workers are only about a third of the number in Cleveland's Cuyahoga County.

It isn't the first time the Lucas County job program has encountered problems. Officials were forced to return $555,000 to Columbus last fall when they missed a state-set deadline for spending the money.

This time, however, problems are the result of the local economy, Mr. Walker said. And since the request for emergency funding was made June 30, there have been additional plant closing announcements. A steel plant and pharmaceutical warehouse in Toledo have said they will close, furloughing 300 more workers.

Finding comparable jobs for workers at Baron Drawn Steel Corp. could be difficult because they average $19 an hour and many have limited schooling and little work experience beyond the plant, Mr. Walker said.

The most recent closing announcement came Tuesday, when AmericsourceBergen Corp. informed 180 Toledo workers it will shut its warehouse on Nebraska Avenue at Ryder Road in the fall. Workers there average $12 an hour.

Re-training of such workers was a prime goal of the Workforce Investment Act, which was approved by federal legislators in 1998.

The idea was to steer them into growing fields with ample career opportunities.

The largest number of displaced workers locally receiving tuition and other assistance is from Food Town and its parent company, Spartan Foods, of Grand Rapids, Mich. Fifty-two employees there who lost their jobs in store closings and a warehouse shut-down are receiving assistance, according to figures provided by Lucas County.



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