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When careers need reinvention

Innovative collaborations between schools, workforce developers, and industry are helping to educate adult workers for the new jobs communities need.

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Yvonne Nolte raised three children and worked as a real estate agent before that sector tanked. Now she’s eyeing jobs at the Callaway Nuclear Plant in Missouri. She’s taking a five-week quality-control class at the University of Missouri in Columbia, which covers basics such as reading blueprints. It should help her get a foot in the door, she says, and then the plant would train her for a particular job. “There will always be a need for more energy,” she says, “and that’s exactly what I was looking for: a career that would see me through retirement and possibly beyond.”

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With a coming wave of retirements and the potential for thousands of new jobs if plans for several nuclear plants go forward, “we’ve seen a tremendous growth in the number of programs ... to prepare the next generation of workers,” says Carol Berrigan, senior director of industry infrastructure at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), which represents the industry in Washington.

After helping to boost the number of nuclear engineers coming out of colleges, NEI has recently turned its attention to building up the pipeline of technical workers coming out of community colleges. Just four years ago, there were only a handful of nuclear programs at community colleges; now there are nearly 50, Ms. Berrigan says.

IN NORTH CAROLINA, major retraining efforts started just over a decade ago as massive numbers of textile and furniture manufacturing jobs shifted to cheaper labor markets abroad. The state has since become a leader in biosciences, and the North Carolina Community College System (NCCS) has played a vital role in collaborating with businesses and universities to “reskill” the workforce.

Since the 1950s, North Carolina leaders have seen “the pivotal role of education strategies to further economic prosperity,” says NCCS president Scott Ralls.

Theresa Lengner, a native of rural Whiteville, N.C., worked in textile manufacturing for 10 years before the plant in her town closed in 1999. The local employment office helped her enroll in nearby Southeastern Community College, and by 2003 she had earned her associate’s degree in environmental science technology. Now she’s a lab technician at the college, but she’s still pursuing higher education. She takes classes part time at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, toward a bachelor’s degree in environmental science.

During these economic times, “everyone gets a little nervous,” Ms. Lengner says, “but I feel like I’m better prepared now than I was 10 years ago to maintain my job, or, if the worst were to happen, to go out and position myself in another job of the same level.”