Career counselors say this get-all-that's-coming-to-you attitude makes all the difference. "Sometimes pride keeps people from taking advantage of the unemployment office," says Barbara Adler, a career-transitions consultant with IMPACT Group in St. Louis. "But they've been working all their lives paying for these programs."
Initially the government rejected Stewart's request for training funds: the campus was too far from her home to qualify under federal guidelines. Undeterred, she used federal funds to enroll in a medical-assistant program at Ivy Tech Community College in Sellersburg, 20 miles closer. It was a less lucrative field, but she figured she could use it as a springboard to more advanced studies later. Stewart has maintained a GPA just shy of 4.0. After two years of course work, she just began her internship in a doctor's office, and she plans to graduate in May. "I know I'll get a job," she says confidently.
It will take more than individual enterprise, though, to get all mature workers who want jobs back to work. First, the government must restore funding for the retraining of older Americans, which, adjusted for inflation, has declined by about a third over the past decade, says Susan Houseman, an economist at the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Michigan. "The transition for older workers is hard," she says. " You need a program that targets their specific needs."
While retraining is part of the solution, it's not the entire answer. "What we're facing is job shortages," says economist Robert Scott. "We need to create more demand for labor."
Scott says he's heartened by President Barack Obama's plan to deliver a jolt to the economy in the form of a giant stimulus package, but says it should focus on spending, not tax cuts. "We need spending of at least $700 billion in the next one to two years," he says. "And the government needs to start now."
A good place to start creating blue-collar jobs, Scott says, is infrastructure: rebuilding the nation's deteriorating roads, bridges, waterways, and schools. He believes Congress also needs to allocate more funding to unemployment compensation and foreclosure prevention, so that those Americans who do lose their jobs receive a softer landing.
Best of all would be an ambitious, well-designed job-creation push for workers at all levels and of all ages. That, says Scott, could help cure more than just the current recession. "For 30 years we've had an economy that has failed to deliver growth for working people," he says. " We need to reverse that. Then we can have an economy where everybody wins."
Barry Yeoman, based in North Carolina, is a contributing editor. His article "When Wounded Vets Come Home" appeared in the July & August 2008 issue.
Additional reporting by Pat Walters, who is earning his master's degree in creative nonfiction at the University of Memphis.