Changing Gears: Retraining Workers

M: Wendy Whitmore is the CEO of a company in Chicago called EMR Approved. It helps doctors and hospitals who are making the switch to electronic medical records.

Four years ago, EMR Approved didn’t exist. Back then, Wendy Whitmore was running an IT consulting firm and it wasn’t doing so well. So she decided to try something new—and she took her 12 employees with her. Same people, new business: Electronic Medical Records. She still runs the IT company, and some of her employees straddle both businesses, but what they’re doing now is totally new.

According to Whitmore, they didn’t have many other options.

W: At that point, what are you going to do? Do you want to continue to have a job and do something a little different or do we need to work toward shutting it down?

M: That transition wasn’t easy, and it came with a lot of uncertainty. Penny Smith had been working for Whitmore since 2002, and she decided to stay when Whitmore turned her old IT company into the new IT company it is today.

P: Well my first reaction was fear because I wasn’t familiar with the health care industry. Was I taking a risk? Yeah, but I knew it was somewhat calculated as well.

M: Now, Smith works with business development at EMR Approved, and she had to go through six months of training and certification to get there. Training like that is a lot of work, and it’s not cheap. Whitmore spent more than 100 thousand dollars to retrain her 12 employees.

But she accomplished something that a lot of people are trying to do—break in to growing industries, like health care, by learning new things, like how to work with electronic medical records.

In 2009, the US government spent 18 billion dollars on retraining programs. State agencies decide how that money is spent. They’re trying to do the same thing that Whitmore did, which is basically like trying to predict the future. Retraining takes time, and states want to make sure that there are jobs waiting at the other end of those programs, six months or even a year from now.

Here’s Wendy Whitmore:

W: On some level we’re making guesses anyway, right? But we do know that the baby boomer generation is ageing, and we do know that health care is getting a lot of attention. And, we’ve got to, you know, stick our pin in the map somewhere.

M: Jeff Smith is an economist at the University of Michigan. He says it’s a lot harder for government agencies to make strategic decisions like that on a big scale. That’s because it’s not easy to make predictions.

J: How does this information about prospective supply and demand for different types of skills get to the right people? It’s a hard task, I think harder than you might think at first blush to try to figure out what there is actually demand for, in some sort of quantitative way, and then apply that information to designing your training program or community college course offerings.

M: So to help figure out where that demand is, Michigan is trying something new: a business driven model.

M: Tyne Lucas is the career transitions coordinator at the Michigan Works drop in center in Washtenaw County. Michigan Works is the state agency that hands out federal funding for retraining.

T: Our new customer is the business, and that doesn’t change what we do for job seekers, because if we’re making sure that we’re providing the businesses, the employers with what they’re looking for, we’re doing a good job for the job seekers as well.

M: Michigan Works is trying to build the workforce that employers need by asking them exactly what they want. You can think about it this way.

T: We try to make a perfect match. We’re a match making agency for employers and job seekers.

M: And if you can match job seeker skills to employer needs, everybody wins.

For Changing Gears, I’m Meg Cramer.

H: This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. Changing Gears is a collaboration between WBEZ Chicago, Michigan Radio and Ideastream in Cleveland. Support for Changing Gears comes from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting.

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