WASHINGTON — Chris Fering has had what a savvy résumé might describe as an eclectic and peripatetic career.
He has worked with disabled group-home residents in Iowa, sold financial investments in Chicago, was an account executive for several Seattle software and data firms and — thanks to a chance encounter with a boat captain at the Ballard Locks — fished for Alaskan crab in the Bering Sea.
Today, at age 43, the Pioneer Square resident is chasing a singular professional goal: a six-figure job as an emergency-room nurse at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center. And Fering is counting on taxpayers to subsidize that switch.
After two brief bouts of unemployment several years ago, Fering enrolled at South Seattle College to become a certified nursing assistant, then a licensed practical nurse. Much of the costs for his two years of school — some $20,000 for tuition, textbooks, uniforms, stethoscope and other supplies — were covered by federal job-training money.
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Fering is preparing to return to class for the three additional quarters he needs to become a registered nurse. Given America’s graying population and the looming retirement of the current corps of older nurses, he is confident “this is what I’m going to be doing for the next 20 years.”
The public’s stake in Fering’s career embodies one of the key aims of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Signed by President Obama in July, it updates Clinton-era legislation to better prepare jobless or disadvantaged youth and adults for an economy increasingly powered by high-skill jobs.
The new law attempts to streamline what had been criticized as a sprawling and overlapping networkof training programs spread out over nine federal agencies. And it requires more meaningful tracking to encourage training that leads not simply to a job, but valuable, transferrable skills. The law was renewed for six years and calls for steadily raising spending on training programs to about $10 billion annually by 2020.
Some of the changes called for in the act have already been under way in Washington state. One example is to better align job training with bigger trends in economic development. That might mean preparing workers for a future in carbon fibers instead of targeting just specific employers such as Boeing or BMW in Moses Lake.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, one of the chief authors of the legislation’s reauthorization, said workers need help fitting into an ever-morphing economy. Entire business types (think video and record stores, for instance) can go virtually extinct, and tugboat operators need to know software, she said, and many Americans are unable to keep pace with the transition.
Murray has often noted that United States lags behind many industrialized countries, such as Canada, Sweden and Germany, in spending on government employment and training programs as a share of the total domestic economy.
“I think there is absolutely a need for this kind of public investment,” Murray, a Democrat, said. “I think it benefits our country to have a skilled workforce.”
Lack of coordination
Yet there remains a mismatch between skills demanded by fastest-growing industries and the supply of qualified workers. A 2013 report commissioned by the business group Washington Roundtable estimated 25,000 job postings in the state went unfilled for more than three months for lack of candidates. Eighty percent of the vacancies were in health care or STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).
That’s a relatively small number in a labor market of nearly 3.5 million workers. But those openings equal 10 percent of the current number of unemployed job hunters in Washington.
Marléna Sessions, chief executive of the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County, one of 12 nonprofit councils that oversee federal training grants in the state, said the programs have been evolving to more efficiently connect job seekers with careers that have the best prospects.
That means acting less like a guidance counselor and more like a case manager. So an aspiring interior decorator, Sessions said, might get steered to consider more in-demand fields such as information technology or health care.
Anyone can seek help from WorkSource centers throughout the state, including seven locations in King County. Services range from help with applying for unemployment benefits and updating résumés to enrolling in training courses and applying for grants to pay for it.
Another major change to come is to intensify focus on jobless youth, particularly those most at risk of being left behind. Unemployment rates for teenagers are three to four times higher than for adults. Black teens are the worst off; one of every three blacks under 20 who wants a job can’t find one. That’s twice the rate of jobless white or Asian youth, and six times the unemployment rate for white adults.
The new legislation flips the funding formula for youth programs to direct 75 percent of the money to teens and young adults who have dropped out of school or are jobless. Previously, 60 percent of the spending was earmarked for those still in school.
Also for the first time, 20 percent of local training grants can be set aside for people who are already employed but want to upgrade their skills or switch to more stable industries.
Pressure to collaborate
Workforce councils, employers, colleges and labor unions will face increased pressure to collaborate, from identifying skills gaps to designing curriculum to match regional economic needs. Already, health-care providers in Seattle have banded together to help fill jobs generated by the federal Affordable Care Act.
As Obamacare creates a surge of newly insured patients, many are navigating the medical maze for the first time. That has raised demand for medical assistants who can serve as patients’ guides, said Barbara Trehearne, vice president of primary care and for clinical excellence at Group Health Cooperative. Such workers, who at Group Health start at $18.47 an hour, may check blood pressure and weight, order supplies, retrieve medical records and assist patients with follow-up care.
Trehearne met regularly with her peers, including from Swedish Medical Center, Virginia Mason and Sea Mar Community Health Centers, to parlay federal training programs into a joint crop of ready-to-work hires.
Otherwise, “we’d have to train them ourselves, which is a lot more labor intensive,” she said.
Fering, the nurse hoping to further advance his career, is grateful and unapologetic for having attended school on the taxpayers’ dime. In March 2008, he jumped from a well-paid job at Onvia, a Seattle company that tracks government-purchasing decisions, for another company. Six months later came a global recession — and a pink slip.
After a second layoff in 2011, Fering decided to stake his future in health care. As a young adult, Fering worked with people with disabilities and chronic mental illnesses in his native Iowa. The work was meaningful, a feeling he never experienced while chasing money later as a financial adviser.
A self-described “adrenaline junkie,” Fering early on decided his dream job would be to work in the emergency room of Seattle’s leading trauma hospital. For now, Fering works part time as an on-call licensed practical nurse at Skyline at First Hill, a skilled nursing home. He also works as an overnight attendant for a 91-year-old Seattle resident.
A wiry man who looks like a laid-back rock climber but who speaks with the peppy intensity of a salesman on commission, Fering has the second half of his professional life mapped out. He needs three more quarters of classes to become a registered nurse. With luck and experience, he expects to be earning $50 an hour as a Harborview nurse before he turns 50.
“I couldn’t have done this when I was younger because I didn’t have the discipline,” he said.
As Fering sees it, his tuition-free training was public money well spent.
“Everybody needs help once in a while,” he said. He plans to repay the debt, in the form of “a long, successful career.”