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Local job centers see increase in demand

By Lee Howard

Publication: The Day

Published February 16. 2013 4:00AM

Even as 45,000 people dropped out of Connecticut's labor market last year, the numbers served by the four eastern Connecticut jobs centers rose by 6.5 percent, according to a new report.

The centers run by the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board in New London, Norwich, Willimantic and Danielson recorded more than 56,000 visits last year. The average client used center resources more than four times annually, the report said.

"It's really a different labor situation than we've dealt with before," John Beauregard, executive director of the Franklin-based workforce board, said in a phone interview.

Until the past few years, long-term unemployment was relatively unusual in the region. But now, with the Norwich-New London labor market's unemployment rate at 8.4 percent, well over half of jobless residents fall into this category.

Still, the numbers of jobseekers passing through the CTWorks centers seem to indicate that people are actively seeking work. Beauregard said.

"It kind of speaks to the degree of the problem," he said.

Responding to increased demand, Beauregard said, job centers are upping the number of workshops delivered while trying to cater to the changing needs of the labor market. The workforce board said the nearly 2,000 workshops it offered last year was more than a 6 percent increase from a year earlier.

Responding to the needs of local employers, the workforce board has been focusing on boosting training in the so-called STEM fields - science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

A statewide initiative that the eastern Connecticut organization managed over the past few years helped place 758 clients during a time when Connecticut shed 60,000 jobs, according to a report last week in the Employment & Training Report, an industry newsletter. The placement rate of 68 percent among those who entered the program without a job is a much higher success rate than has been seen in recent years among people who have been involved in less focused attempts to shore up employment skills, Beauregard said.

The Connecticut STEM Jobs Initiative, approved in 2008 and funded with a $2 million grant, was one of only five such projects administered in other states across the country on a trial basis. The program got under way just as the state and national economy started a nosedive into recession, and it attacked the unemployment problem from a number of different angles, offering job coaches and online learning as a major component.

"We realize the value of the tech classroom experience," Beauregard said.

By focusing on online learning rather than a classroom experience, he said, the workforce board was able to save a significant amount of money while giving workers what they needed - certification in certain fields of expertise. Lower costs also allowed more workers to be served.

While Beauregard had expected most of the trainees to be young people struggling to find jobs, more than half of the program participants turned out to be people over 50 who were trying to refresh skills after being laid off from industries undergoing radical changes.

Beauregard said the programs that work best involve local employers, and STEM jobs are a focus because of their multiplier effects throughout the economy.

"These are skills that create other jobs in the region," he said.

l.howard@theday.com

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