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Retraining classes at community colleges can lead to rewarding jobs

David Kieffer saw it coming, but still it stung. The 56-year-old from Eagle River, Wisconsin, had worked for three years as a carpenter's assistant, watching helplessly as home construction dried up. By the end of 2009 he was jobless and unable to find steady work. "I'd never had a problem finding a job before," he says. "I must have sent out 50 résumés — and didn't receive one reply." For a year he took odd jobs through a temp service.

See also: Best Employers for Workers Over 50.

Then, in January, Kieffer learned that Nicolet College, in nearby Rhinelander, was offering specialized job-training classes in cooperation with local employers. After being assessed by a Nicolet career counselor, Kieffer enrolled in computer literacy, blueprint reading, applied technical mathematics, and other courses, all geared toward obtaining a Manufacturing Fundamentals certificate.

Three months later one of Kieffer's instructors, an employee at HyPro Inc., a local machine shop that provides parts to industrial clients, recommended him for an interview. "Before I got home, there was a message that I'd start the following Monday," he says.

Kieffer had lucked into one of the best secrets in job retraining: community colleges. Politicians have paid a lot of lip service to the need to retrain displaced older workers, but most government programs have been ineffective. Private vocational institutes and for-profit colleges, meanwhile, sometimes inflate employment prospects. Community colleges that offer retraining programs in partnership with local employers have stepped into the breach.

"Few people think of a community college as a place to turn, but these schools create relationships with local businesses," says William J. Holstein, author of The Next American Economy: Blueprint for a Real Recovery, which examines the challenges of retraining displaced older workers. "Many potential employers sit on curriculum advisory committees or teach classes, meaning that graduates have a greater chance of getting hired."

Another benefit for cash-strapped job seekers: Community college tuitions average $2,700 a year — typically just one-fifth that of private, for-profit colleges and vocational schools. Flexible class scheduling (nights, weekends, or online) allows students to work part-time while studying. Moreover, community colleges offer, well, a community. "We provide a support system of assessment, career counseling, and job placement," explains Norma Kent, a senior vice president of the American Association of Community Colleges, which represents 1,200 schools. "We don't put you in a position to fail."

Socorro Flores, 63, counts herself a community college success story. In March 2010, after 22 years as a machine operator and then a custodian (to avoid being downsized) with Wrigley Manufacturing in Yorkville, Illinois, Flores was handed a pink slip and a retirement package. "My unemployment checks and severance weren't going to cut it," she says. "I had to find a job."

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