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Originally published March 6, 2014 at 8:09 PM | Page modified March 6, 2014 at 10:20 PM

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Public-private partnership gives the jobless new skill, prospects

A taxpayer-funded welding class at Seattle’s Vigor Shipyards is training long-unemployed workers for a career change — and a blue-collar dream of a steady living wage.


Seattle Times Washington bureau

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Naomi Ruden has a degree in sculpture from the University of Washington. She’s been unemployed since being laid off as office manager for University Baptist Church in Seattle five months ago.

Daniel McKee studied printmaking and photography at Western Washington University. He has not earned a full-time paycheck since losing his job as a manager and custom framer at Aaron Brothers in Issaquah in July.

Now Ruden and McKee are training for a blue-collar dream — jobs as ship welders they hope would offer a secure living and annual pay of $40,000 or more.

The two Seattle residents are among 19 students enrolled in a maritime welding class for dislocated workers. The program was created jointly last year by Vigor Shipyards and South Seattle Community College.

Ruden’s and McKee’s midcareer switch — borne out of hope, desperation and a dose of faith — was driven by an economy still sputtering to recover. The Great Recession officially ended in June 2009. Washington state has gained back all the jobs lost during the recession.

Yet 10.2 million Americans remain out of work. More than 8 million others have resigned themselves to part-time jobs or given up job hunting altogether. Nearly 36 percent of the jobless have been unemployed more than six months, according to the Economic Policy Institute, levels unseen before the recent downturn.

The welding program is part of a public investment to return idled workers to payrolls. Vigor spent $500,000 to convert a warehouse at its Seattle shipyard on Harbor Island into a training center. But federal money, managed by the Workforce Development Council of Seattle — King County, covers the cost of tuition, books, fees, masks and other supplies, totaling an average of $4,440 per student.

President Obama called for more such spending, including jobs training through community colleges, in his 2015 budget outline released this week. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, who chairs the Senate budget committee, has long pushed for greater investment in worker training, noting that the United States lags far behind other industrial nations.

On Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered the state to redirect $4 million in federal money normally earmarked to help workers during mass layoffs at single companies to instead fund “new strategies to return the long-term unemployed to work as fast as possible.”

Many Republicans in Congress, in contrast, are focused foremost on cutting the deficit, not boosting agency funding. And since January, Senate Republicans three times blocked efforts to renew 37 weeks of emergency-unemployment benefits, which expired at the end of December. Washington residents still can collect up to 26 weeks of benefits covered by unemployment-insurance tax on employers.

Elusive job openings

For Ruden and McKee, learning to weld has given them more than just a shot at a new livelihood. It also has meant deliverance from a disheartening hunt for elusive job openings.

Ruden, who turns 40 this month, had a single interview since she lost her job in October. She knows it could be worse.

“I know people who went two years without ever having an interview,” said Ruden, who is single and lives on Capitol Hill. Still, “I think if I weren’t in the (welding) class, I would be more downbeat.”

Ruden isn't receiving unemployment benefits because churches are allowed to opt out of the insurance program, as University Baptist did.

For McKee, the training program is a chance to break away from low-paying retail jobs he’s held since graduating in 2000. He believes his fine-arts background — along with brushing up on math — has given him an aptitude for welding.

McKee said he’s thrilled with the opportunity to “hopefully make a real career change doing something lucrative that I enjoy.”

Of the 19 people who graduated from the inaugural six-month welding class in December, 14 had landed jobs by the end of February. Vigor hired six of them; Nucor Steel, Foss shipyard and other employers claimed the rest, said Brian Mannion, a Vigor spokesman.

Mannion said welding jobs at Vigor start at about $14 an hour and rise to $20 an hour. With overtime, he said, annual pay can top $70,000.

The maritime industry in the Puget Sound area is enjoying a resurgence. Vigor is building two Washington State Ferries, repairing the Navy destroyer USS Momsen and recently completed a major overhaul of a Coast Guard ice breaker.

Yet it’s not uncommon, Mannion said, for Vigor to get job applicants who’ve never picked up a welding torch. The training program with South Seattle Community College was the company’s way of ensuring a pipeline of qualified workers.

Path to employment

The pool of unemployed workers who need help training for new careers dwarfs the dollars available. The 2014 budget for the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration — the main federal purse for the welding class at Vigor and other worker-training programs — is $3.15 billion. By contrast, 2013 federal spending on food stamps was $76 billion.

The two-year budget agreement Murray struck in December with Rep. Paul Ryan, her counterpart as chairman of the House Budget Committee, helped restore about $200 million in training funding that had been targeted for cuts under sequestration.

Marléna Sessions, chief executive officer for Workforce Development Council of Seattle — King County, said acquiring skills in targeted industries is a proven path to employment. The council acts as a matchmaker between job seekers and industries, and distributes federal grants to training programs at community and technical colleges, as well as helping operate 24 free WorkSource centers in King County for job hunters.

Tens of thousands of people in Washington are enrolled in job-training programs, paid for with a combination of state and federal dollars and offered through nonprofit agencies, as well as the state’s 34 community and technical colleges.

Sessions said her agency’s federal funding fell to $15.4 million last year, down from $19.3 million in 2009, when it benefited from an infusion of federal stimulus money. Adjusted for inflation, Sessions said, her budget is smaller than it had been in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, some 40,000 Washington residents were kicked off or have run out of unemployment benefits since Congress let the extended benefits expire Dec. 28. An estimated 5,000 people continue to exhaust their benefits each month, said Sheryl Hutchison, spokeswoman for the Washington State Employment Security Department.

One of them was McKee, who received his final check this week. McKee stretched his 26 weeks of benefits by a couple of months by taking less than the $342 he qualified for. He offset the reduced amount with earnings from a weekend gig as a courier for Postmates, which delivers food and merchandise ordered via smartphones.

In a job market flooded with unemployed workers, McKee said he’s grateful for the time and help to prepare for a serious career change. His wife, Sierra Wahlke, also lost her manager’s position at Aaron Brothers, an art and framing chain store, last summer. Within a month, she jumped at a job offer from Starbucks as shift supervisor. But that paid less than what she would have collected in unemployment.

In hindsight, McKee believes, his wife would have been better off to have been pickier. Wahlke, 32, since has switched to a full-time cashier’s job at Trader Joe’s on Capitol Hill.

“I think it’s to the nation’s benefit to have more skilled workers employed in better-paying industries,” he said.

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com. Twitter: @KyungMSong



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