- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 5, 2004

Karyn Younkins of Lorton is on pace to graduate a year before her 20-year-old daughter.

Mrs. Younkins, 42, switched career gears in January as part of the accelerated nursing program at Northern Virginia Community College (Nova).

“Once you have your [registered-nurse degree], it changes everything,” says Mrs. Younkins, who has worked 14 years as an office manager. “There are so many opportunities out there. I’ll be able to have a job for the rest of my life.”

Plenty of American workers take some sort of job-retraining program at some point in their careers.

Community colleges offer a wealth of relatively affordable classes for those looking for career makeovers. Local departments of labor also can lead workers toward the second, or third, stage in their professional lives.

For Mrs. Younkins, community college is helping fulfill a lifelong dream, one that couldn’t be derailed by a crippling accident she suffered six years ago. A filing system fell on top of her, causing extensive damage to her legs. She walks with a crutch, but that hasn’t prevented her from retraining herself for the future.

Mrs. Younkins, who studies beside students of all ages in her classes, says the amount of studying needed for retraining can be gargantuan.

“This semester, we had 355 pages to read one week,” she says, which doesn’t take into account time-management issues and life’s other priorities. “I want to get an A. I’m a straight-A student.”

Margaret Singleton, director of work-force development and education for the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, says the health care field is the “number one job market” right now.

One downside, Ms. Singleton says, is that nurses require training that goes beyond some other retraining efforts. Not all workers will have the time to spend on the new education.

Ronda Hall, director of continuing education for Nova’s Medical Education Campus in Springfield, says the information technology field is responsible for dislocating plenty of workers of late. Yet even as the industry undergoes a metamorphosis, “becoming more embedded in the work we do,” jobs in health IT are growing fast.

Those jobs include positions in which workers manage medical records or deal with record coding and digitization.

“There’s a nice career ladder off of it,” Ms. Hall says. “You can go to a community college and start out doing basic coding classes. You’re taking text information and translating it into an alphanumeric code.”

Many of those entering the college’s coding-intensive programs have been downsized out of a job or are re-entering the job market. Typically, they’re not full-time workers, she says.

The skills are highly transportable, she says, and some of it can be done remotely.

“Records can be scanned and sent,” Ms. Hall says. “It’s not something that’s going to be outsourced overseas. There are very strict rules with privacy.”

Some older students enter the classroom questioning their ability to handle going back to school after decades or more since graduating from high school or college.

“They’re finding, as adults, they’re great learners. Their motivation is different,” she says.

Dennis Sullivan, program specialist for continuing education for Nova’s Manassas campus, says interest is strong lately in classes involving grant writing, project management and foreign languages.

Jobs requiring security clearances also are on the rise, says Mr. Sullivan, who recommends visiting www.intelligencecareers.com for more information on the subject.

One field that has cooled considerably in recent years is Web design. Today’s companies often hire workers with some basic Web-design skills to tweak existing sites, but fewer are seeking designers solely for those skills.

“People are preparing less to be a Web developer … but just to enhance their hire-ability,” he says.

Retraining is also a key component of the mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Judy Caden, director of the department’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Service, says her colleagues help veterans re-enter the work force by examining each person’s interests and identifying the jobs that match individual abilities.

Most veterans go through a period when they must accept changes needed in their lives, which can involve injuries sustained in battle, Ms. Caden says.

Theresa Boyd, the department’s assistant director for rehabilitation services, says that often means veterans who once paid their bills with physical labor need to find new ways to make a living.

“For some veterans, it’s very difficult. They never considered doing anything but physical [work],” Miss Boyd says.

Civilian workers also face the shock of the new, Ms. Singleton says.

“Sometimes it could be just a change in work environment,” Ms. Singleton says of the retrained worker’s new office space. “It could be intimidating, or it could require a change in their expectations.”

The results of retraining, especially for those forced out of positions by technological shifts or downsizing, may not help the worker’s economic situation.

Earning capacity doesn’t necessarily increase compared with what was offered by the previous job, she says.

Universities and community colleges are a direct resource for workers looking to retrain themselves. Ms. Singleton says local departments of labor can be another valuable place to begin the retraining process.

Some people qualify for retraining benefits, she says, if they’re unemployed or if they’re considered low-wage workers.

She also suggests researching job trends online and talking to temp agencies and career counselors recommended through local employment offices.

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