Can Retraining Give the Unemployed a Second Chance?

As a kid, Bricknell showed an aptitude for art. “I wouldn’t say I was an artist, but I could visualize and draw things,” he says. So rather than put cars together, he went to work helping design them.

When he first started, Bricknell, who has a broad, friendly face and the sincerity of a thoughtful teenager, worked on actual drafting boards. Some were big enough to fit lifesize molds of car roofs and hoods, and he would crawl around on the paper to trace the shapes. He bounced happily from shop to shop, adapting when the work moved onto computers in the late 1980s. All it took to get a new job then, Bricknell says, was a phone call, and the job usually came with a raise. In his best year he made nearly $100,000. He met his wife, a General Motors (GM) engineer, at a bar across from the GM Technical Center. They had two sons.

In 2001 the automotive trim division where Bricknell was working was sold from one manufacturing conglomerate, Textron, to another, Collins & Aikman. He and his co-workers lost their overtime pay, then their sick days, and much of their vacation time. In 2003 he was laid off. “That was the first time I have ever been out of work in my life,” he says. He found sporadic design jobs over the next few years, but more positions were outsourced, the Big Three were retrenching, and the efficiency of new software meant fewer designers were needed.

Now Bricknell drives a school bus. When school’s out he works odd jobs; last summer he built and delivered Port-a-Potties for $10 an hour. This summer, though, he didn’t work. He’s been busy moving into a new place—he and his wife divorced in July—and dealing with depression.

But in the last couple of months, for the first time in nearly a decade, Bricknell has been getting calls about jobs. A headhunter said there were openings at GM and other places—so many that they were having a hard time filling them. The trouble is that while Bricknell was driving a bus, car design migrated onto more sophisticated platforms. New employers had openings for people like Andrew Bricknell, but they weren’t retraining them.

So in late August, Bricknell was deep into an intensive, monthlong course on CATIA, one of two design programs used by the big automakers. Sitting in a community college classroom at a desktop computer, he adjusted the dimensions of brackets and bumpers, trying to get proficient enough to pass the employment application tests. The 64-hour course costs $800, all of which is picked up by the Labor Dept. When Bricknell is ready, a job placement specialist will go over his résumé and give him interview pointers.

Over three-fourths of the program’s grads have gotten design jobs, but Bricknell is falling behind. “I haven’t sat down in front of a tube for five years,” he says. He comes in on mornings when there are no classes to try to catch up. “I just would like to get back to work. I mean, driving a school bus is fun, but it doesn’t pay.”

 

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