Career bottomed out? Local program seeks to help people make a fresh start

When Craig and Laura Morris left for work one morning last year, they had no idea how drastically their lives would change that day. The two Qwest employees, married since 2001, had heard rumors of upcoming layoffs but were caught by surprise when it was announced that both their jobs were being relocated to Nebraska and Arizona.

"We were shell-shocked," said Laura. "Instantly 150 jobs were gone, and we were going to lose our two incomes."

A career fair led them to Seattle Central Community College's Worker Retraining Program (WRT) and the very persuasive WRT manager, Mary Lockman, who helped the couple turn a negative into a positive.

"Laura and I talked about it and realized that this was our one opportunity to start over brand new," Craig explained.

Lockman's employment specialist career includes a stint as a startup manager for Ben & Jerry's shops in Times Square, where she trained adults who had been deemed unemployable - everyone from new immigrants and the homeless, to those with chemical dependency or mental health issues. She has become an expert at what she describes as "capturing people's strengths and rerouting them."

A new start

The Morrises were both interested in the health field and, with encouragement and financial assistance provided by WRT, the couple began classes summer quarter - Laura in the surgical technology program and Craig in respiratory therapy.

"Health is a good field because you can't get outsourced," noted Laura with a laugh. "You go to the operating room, and you need someone there."

The couple typifies students served by WRT, most of whom are undergoing major, life-altering career changes.

"These are not 18-year olds trying the world on," Lockman asserted. "These are people who, in the midst of their lives, are suddenly, unexpectedly faced with a crossroads they must navigate. And it's one that they must navigate with burdens, financial and otherwise."

Worker retraining provides a funding and academic advising source that essentially retools students, through workforce education programs, to return to the job market as soon as possible. The program is offered at all Washington state community and technical colleges, and serves recent dislocated workers, displaced homemakers and consultants or small business owners who don't have the competitive skills to meet market demands.

Eligible students may receive financial assistance that could include tuition, books, bus passes, and fees. Seattle Central's WRT office also provides resume services for all WRT students as well as job search and placement assistance, and even post-grad job counseling.

And it's all done on an individual basis. More than 50 potential students are interviewed each week in the WRT office, or attend an orientation session. Students find an office staff sensitive to their circumstances, ready to offer advice, counsel, and even tissues.

"These people have been rudely interrupted in their career by a layoff or lack of skills," said Lockman. "Often they don't want to be here, but they want to pay for their mortgage, utilities, and car, and feed their children, and they recognize they need to be here in order to continue to do those things. But, they're not often aware of what it will take to put their lives back together. Maybe the industry they loved has gone away and there's a process of letting go and even grieving for that industry."

An edge in your industry

Some WRT students, like Hans Gomez, upgrade their skills within the same industry.

The former IT team manager, a victim of the dot-com crash several years ago, took classes at Seattle Central that enabled him to become more competitive in the IT market. He now heads Triple Net Technologies, a successful computer consulting company that has created a project tracking system for the United Nations in Afghanistan, trained an Afghan technical team, and won major bids for Port of Seattle projects. He appreciates Lockman's commitment to student success.

"She has a tremendous compassion for people in need and makes you feel supported no matter what," he said. "She's also a great advocate for you, not only at the school, but when you get beyond school. A lot of these students don't have anybody in their corner helping them out. She's the only one. She's a very strong presence - almost like a sister, mother figure, and coach."

The Morrises add an enthusiastic second, when Craig noted that, "She's down to earth and makes you feel comfortable," and Laura added that, "She guides you without you even knowing you're being guided."

The entire WRT staff has earned a reputation as a caring, compassionate, and competent group. Lockman, Pegi Hurd, Portia Bell, Barbara Coston, Errol Nelson, and Leona Griffith all enjoy their opportunity to positively impact students' lives.

Said Hurd, who conducts WRT orientation sessions, "It's really satisfying to know that you've erased some of the barriers that people have, like fears about being too old to return to school. It's fun to see that once they get in and start doing it, they're so happy about what they've accomplished."

If you think you might be eligible for Worker Retraining, call their office at 206 587-6310.

Candace Oehler may be reached via[[In-content Ad]]