One worker’s story: A layoff, a lesser job, a long wait for training

Eric Bussey says the world he once knew – the one centered on his job as a loan specialist with Wells Fargo – vanished in March 2013 when the bank laid him off.

Unable to find full-time work, he drives a limousine part time for Alexander Funeral Home in Charlotte. He wants to move to a career path where he’d find more job openings, but the classes he needs are full.

Bussey, 50, feels he’s landed in employment limbo, stuck between a job sector that no longer seems to need his services and unable to jump to a more promising one.

“The jobs are out there, but the companies are looking for a specific person that fits that specific role,” he said. “If you don’t have that specific set of skills, they keep looking.”

Count him among the millions of workers who are struggling on this Labor Day to keep pace with a fluid job market where the skills companies require sometimes change faster than workers can retrain.

More than 3 million U.S. workers remain among the long-term unemployed – those who have been jobless for 27 or more weeks. Their numbers have been falling as the economy picks up, but experts say getting back to work has been tougher in the wake of the most recent recession than it was following the economic downturns of the 1980s.

“It takes people much longer to get back to work today than it did six or seven years ago,” said Steve Partridge, head of Charlotte Works, the job training agency to which Bussey turned for help. “We’re a much more change-oriented society, and the skills and needs of companies change much more quickly.”

Some fields – especially technology- and science-related jobs – are expanding, while others, such as low-tech manufacturing and textiles, are contracting.

“It’s sort of a tale of two labor markets,” said UNC Charlotte economist John Connaughton. “There’s a general labor market for people who aren’t in phased-out labor sectors and aren’t older that seems to be working out just fine.”

The other, as Bussey is finding, can be painful to navigate. He feels as young and eager to work as ever, but has begun to suspect some employers prefer younger applicants.

“I know they’re saying the unemployment rate is down,” he said, “but to me, it really hasn’t been as encouraging as they’re saying.”

Mismatch of jobs, skills

Unemployment has been falling in North Carolina and nationally. The Charlotte metropolitan area’s jobless rate, pushed to double digits by the recession, sat at 6.8 percent in July, down from 8.5 percent a year earlier.

Still, the available jobs and the qualifications of the labor pool don’t always sync up neatly.

Today’s mismatches have produced talk of a much-debated “skills gap.” According to a Georgetown University study, there will be 55 million job openings through 2020, but most will require education and training beyond high school.

It predicts that the nation will fall 5 million workers short of meeting the demand.

At Central Piedmont Community College, officials say air-conditioning and welding classes have been full for years, but classes for lesser-known fields such as electrical systems technology draw fewer students – though employers prize those skills.

For Bussey, the path from layoff casualty to career-switching new hire has been frustrating.

He’d been handling internal employee loans for Wells Fargo for about 13 years when he was laid off in 2013.

“They told us our jobs were basically going to get sent to India,” he said. “One thing I’m confident (of) … there was nothing I did that caused me to be laid off.”

He has since applied for jobs ranging from positions in his old field to stock clerk at Costco but has received few interviews and no offers.

To keep making mortgage payments on his North Charlotte home and his small Kia Forte, he took in a roommate and accepted the driving job offered by a fellow deacon at his church, Alexander Funeral Home CEO Alfred Alexander.

He’s happy for the work, and Alexander said he’s happy to have him. Still, he makes about $75 per funeral. Some weeks, the home doesn’t have any funerals scheduled.

Seeking a toehold into a high-demand career field, he went to Charlotte Works and looked into X-ray and cardiology technician classes.

The classes, subsidized by the federal government, were full. Nearly 800 Charlotte Works clients enrolled in such subsidized classes last budget year.

“It will be sometime late next year or 2016 to get into those programs,” Bussey said. “I even looked into the nursing field, but everything’s booked up. Nothing’s available.”

‘All-consuming topic’

His situation is not uncommon. UNCC’s Connaughton said N.C. colleges and universities, hampered by tight budgets, have struggled to expand classes.

N.C. lawmakers, at Gov. Pat McCrory’s urging, put $15 million in the most recent state budget to boost community college classes in high-demand job sectors such as health care and technology.

CPCC is hiring a new director to oversee its effort to close the training gap for such “middle skill” jobs, which typically pay well but don’t require a four-year college degree.

To stay on top of companies’ evolving needs, CPCC runs analytical studies on labor data, said Mary Vickers-Koch, dean of business and industry learning at CPCC.

But even when gaps are found, it isn’t easy to retool courses. A recent CPCC energy sector study, for example, took nine months.

“This is an all-consuming topic of ours,” Vickers-Koch said. The job market “is changing faster than the students can.”

She added that companies have increasingly offered apprenticeship programs to help bridge the education and training gaps. CPCC also has accelerated remedial math instruction, a common stumbling block for students trying to switch careers.

Time is increasingly precious for Bussey. His unemployment checks will run out in a couple of weeks, and he’s wondering how he’ll make ends meet without a breakthrough.

He relies on his family, friends and fellow church members at St. Paul Baptist to help him stay positive.

“It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve been managing,” he said. “I’m still looking for a job and looking for full-time work. Hopefully something will come out of that soon.”

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