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Their Old Jobs Gone, Unemployed Workers Use COVID Relief Funds to Retrain for New Positions


Trainees at the Hospitality Training Academy make meals for seniors, part of a Los Angeles-area program that is funded, in part, by the American Rescue Plan and the CARES Act.(Courtesy Adine Forman, HTA)

Two massive spending programs pushed through the U.S. Congress in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — the CARES Act (2020) and the American Rescue Plan (2021) — are being used by states and local governments to retrain workers for a post-pandemic job market.

The pandemic fueled the highest U.S. unemployment rate — 14.8% in April 2020 — since job data collection began in the United States in 1948. And for some of the unemployed, like those in hardest-hit industries such as leisure and hospitality, returning to their jobs isn’t an option.

“There have been programs designed, utilizing the CARES Act money — the COVID money — to really put forth an effort to get individuals who have been impacted by COVID-19, in terms of employment and opportunity, to get training and retraining, or new training, so that they can be ready for different career paths,” says Darren Blackston, executive director of adult and continuing education at Delaware State University.

Delaware launched a job retraining initiative using $15 million the state received through the CARES Act. Blackston says retraining has focused on information systems, trades (any occupation that requires advanced training rather than a college degree) and health care.

“We have nursing assistant programs, we have medical billing and coding, we have lab,” Blackston says. “We have all of those things. If they wanted to get a nursing degree, then they have an opportunity to do that through our degree side of the program. So, whatever they're looking for, we make sure that we're able to provide that training.”

Free community college

In Michigan, COVID-19 essential workers — everyone from health care providers and grocery stores workers to those delivering supplies or picking up trash — was offered free community college. The program was funded by the CARES Act.

“The pickup has been quick and enormous and has pretty fast effects, because these folks are now enrolled in community college,” says John Austin, director of the Michigan Economic Center. “And they're going to be getting a skill that allows them to take the jobs that do exist, of which there's a lot of demand for workers and employees in a lot of sectors. And so, it allows them to get equipped quickly.”

Former restaurant supervisor Brian Stauffer (left) applied for Futures for Frontliners, a job training initiative announced by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's (right) to learn how to weld, August 2021. (Photo courtesy Grand Rapids Community College)

Austin says COVID relief dollars are being used to beef up an aging infrastructure in Michigan and the Midwest, including the lack of digital access. Training in the state also focuses on health care jobs, as well as information systems, but also new robot delivery services — some developed by automakers headquartered there.

“You're going to need retraining. You're going to need to learn how to program the computer versus perform a manual task. And so, we do see with this recession, just like after the Great Recession (2007-2009), that 99% of jobs that pay a decent wage required some form of post-secondary credential or training past high school,” says Austin. “And that's the case with this pandemic-induced recession.”

Hospitality opportunities

Alhaghie Dampha got laid off from his chef job at a Los Angeles-area hotel after the pandemic hit but says a program funded by COVID relief money helped him get back on his feet.

“I got a call back to work,” Dampha says, “and get the opportunity to work on the senior meal program that we’re doing right now with the county of Los Angeles, where we provide almost 10,000 meals every week to senior citizens, people who are impacted by the pandemic, homeless, survivors of sexual harassment and trafficking.”

Alhaghie Dampha (right) helps prepare food for the senior meal program at the Hospitality Training Academy in Los Angeles, California. (Photo courtesy Adine Forman, HTA)

Dampha says the job opportunity was made possible thanks to a training program offered by Unite Here Local Eleven, the Food Service and Hospitality Workers Union. The senior food program keeps cooks and delivery people employed, hotel kitchens up and running, and provides healthy meals to seniors and other groups, according to Adine Forman, executive director of the union’s Hospitality Training Academy.

“As of now, we have received over $50 million in government funding to provide those services. And we have brought 1,100 workers back to work, and we have fed over 10,000 individuals since April of 2020,” Forman says, adding that funding comes from the American Rescue Plan, the CARES Act, and California’s state government. The money covers training tuition, transportation and child care.

Once the program is phased out, Forman says the academy will help transition trainees to other jobs, including those higher up in the hospitality industry.

Technology jobs

The Information and Engineering Technologies division at Northern Virginia’s Community College (NOVA) has also received federal and state relief money to train displaced people and others to fill in-demand technical jobs.

“We’ve been able to give out almost $22 million to our students through that support,” says Chad Knights, vice president of NOVA’s Information and Engineering Technologies.

Northern Virginia Community College's Information and Engineering Technologies division received federal and state relief money to train displaced people and others to fill in-demand technical jobs. (Photo by M. Burke/VOA)

The school provides training in cloud computing technology and connects its students with industry partners in Northern Virginia, according to Knights.

“We’re having trouble keeping students in the program because really, the minute they make it through what is our certificate program, they are snatched up for internships and local positions,” he says.

The students train in engineering technology, learning to maintain computer servers, manage power distribution and network connectivity, which has become even more important with the increase in telework since the pandemic hit. Other students study software development and data analytics.

The ultimate goal of job retraining, says Blackston, is to place these workers in a solid position to weather future hardships.

“What COVID exposed was a lot of the inequities in our society, in terms of wealth disparity,” Blackston says. “And so, these jobs now across the board will help individuals really improve their stance, and with their families, be able to have a living wage, but (also) get some stability when we do have issues like COVID come up.”

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