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Help For The White Collar Unemployed Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Workopolis.com Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit www.CareerActivist.com.

Admittedly, the folks at Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) have their hands full these days. Their role is to help Canadians get back to work. But with such a wide range of people unemployed in the GTA, it's not easy to help every single group. Throw in the backlash from some recent funding scandals, and you can see how priorities might shift from time to time.

Lately it seems that the shift is away from the experienced white collar crowd, sometimes referred to as knowledge workers. Maybe you find this trend as perplexing as I do. After all, isn't this the group that typically holds managerial and professional positions? Lots are well into their 40's, 50's or beyond. And more and more of them are being thrust into unemployment lines across the country (think Nortel announcing 3,500 layoffs this week).

Yet HRSDC is backing away from several long-running programs serving this faction. In the last few weeks alone, at least three key providers have learned their HRSDC subsidies are ending: EARN (Executive Advancement Resource Network), HAPPEN (Halton And Peel Professional Executive Network, now in York Region too), and Pro Training. In total, these services assist several thousand unemployed knowledge workers yearly.

Why the change? I spoke to Pat Walcott, Director General, Service Delivery, Toronto/York Sector (HRSDC). She says 'In some cases, we are moving away from specialized services to focus on community based programs all unemployed people can access.' Mainly it's about being accountable and cost effective. 'We believe this is the best way to provide timely services to all unemployed Canadians.'

Walcott points out that HRSDC spends $84 million annually in the GTA to support job search programs of all types. This overall level of sustenance is stable. Right now there is particular emphasis on groups facing 'extreme' challenges, including youth under 30, recent immigrants, disabled persons and women at risk.

'In government, one must attempt to balance the interests of all clients,' adds Walcott. She notes that other HRSDC sponsored programs, such as Employment Resource Centres, job finding clubs, and client case management can adequately service those affected by the funding decisions.

Try telling that to Jim Geraghty, Program Director, HAPPEN. After revising and re-submitting his funding proposal six times in eight months, HRSDC decided not to renew its commitment to them after three straight years of support. HAPPEN, which holds weekly networking meetings for its members and guests in Mississauga, Burlington and Vaughan, has been operating since the early 90's.

'It's questionable whether we will be able to carry on now,' says Geraghty. 'Unfortunately there's nowhere else our clients can get this opportunity to network with others in their fields, at their level, this readily.'

Geraghty, who's been involved with HAPPEN for the last six of its thirteen years, is quick to point out that the local HRSDC office has been very helpful. He knows they've been under a microscope since thirteen people were charged in his region in a $1 million job training scam. 'Still,' says Geraghty, 'our clients need a place to meet with their peers and talk about the special issues confronting mid-level employees.'

This refrain is echoed by Oliver Howey, Executive Director, EARN. His organization, founded in 1990 as a self-help network for unemployed management types, sees 2500 people come to its meetings downtown and in Markham every year. Howey notes 'There appears to be a belief that middle level people, over the age of 40, have the wherewithal to find jobs on their own. HRSDC will give them basic assessment and fixed-period job search programs, a good starting point. What they're not realizing is that mature workers are being discriminated against and have unique needs.'

EARN saw more than 160 people 'graduate' from its program last year into re-employment. Internal surveys show the average member makes about $70,000 a year in their new job. That's over $11,000,000 in regained salaries to prime the economy and pay taxes.

'The services you get at EARN cannot be replaced in the regular system,' says Howie. Mid-level white collar employees are hunkering down in their offices, he adds, to avoid layoffs. They're busy and often don't have time to build networks with other people outside their company. 'upwards of 70 to 80% of all new work is found through networking. That's why an environment like EARN is so critical. It gives these people what they need, when they need it.'

Walcott, from HRSDC, counters as follows. The mid-level knowledge workers are 'a fairly capable group, in need of updated labour market information and training in job hunting skills. We should be able to link these people up in job hunting clubs.'

The president of Pro Training, Rob Edwards, is not convinced. 'Our rallying cry is 'one size doesn't fit all.''' Edwards points to trends that make his services all the more vital these days. For instance, the increasing reluctance of employers to spend money on extensive outplacement programs for their downsized staff, and the 'generic' nature of HRSDC services offered to all comers.

''Babyboomers have to wake up,'' says Edwards. 'Why doesn't HRDC give out skills development funding? Why are they moving away from this type of targeted program?' He goes on to voice a lament common to the other providers I spoke with: 'Since EI has been cut back significantly -- how can HRSDC claim that lifelong learning is key?'

Meanwhile, each of the programs mentioned here will try to soldier on as best they can. Happen has had to double its fees for memberships and meetings. EARN laid off a key employee, must give up its offices, and has had to find new space for its downtown meetings. Meanwhile Pro Train just terminated six employees.

Does this spell the end of programs for mature white collar workers? Or is it just a moratorium until the jobless rate begins to climb again? Whichever way it goes, there's no doubt the loss will be felt. Backlash from current program participants is expected. Letter writing campaigns are under way to all levels of government. Not surprising, given Howie's final observation: 'When you stop giving support to your most significant taxpayer group, people are going to start questioning the $41 Billion dollar Employment Insurance surplus -- if it's not there for their time of need, then what is it for?'
Part Two:Money is Available to Upgrade Your Skills

Few people know about this government funded program

Want to know a secret? Well, it's not strictly confidential, but you might think it was it's so rare you hear about it. Turns out there's money available for training if you're out of work and Employment Insurance eligible. Human Resources Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) has a program geared to upgrading your marketability. It's called the Skills Development Employment Benefit (SDEB). While you boost your knowledge and abilities it helps offset the costs of courses and living expenses Essentially this support is for those having difficulty finding work, in particular where a skills gap is involved. For example, you may have worked in a warehouse but now a minimum requirement is forklift training. Or you're a bookkeeper who took a few years out of the workforce to raise your children; some courses in computerized accounting programs might be essential for you. Youth who want to improve their qualifications should consider applying as well.

The idea, according to Rebecca Kingdon, a Regional Director with HRSDC in Ontario, is 'to help clients find the shortest, most appropriate route to employment, based on their experience, abilities and labour market conditions.'

Here are some of the expenses that may be covered by the SDEB while you study:

-education costs such as tuition, books, student fees, application or exam charges -continued payment of Employment Insurance (which is treated as taxable income)

-basic living expenses (shelter/food/utilities) plus transportation and dependant care Kingdon emphasizes that all benefits under the SDEB must be negotiated: That is, they are not automatic, and will be based on your specific circumstances. The maximum duration of your course work will be 52 weeks. And while the Application Form gives the impression you could get up to $25,000 or more, in practice the amount is far less.

First, though, comes eligibility. You must be unemployed, where an unemployment benefit period has started or ended within the preceding 36 months, or where a claim for maternity or parental benefits was established within the preceding 60 months, and you are now seeking to re-enter the labour force. Don't quit a job to apply for funds, though. Even if you have just cause to leave, such as being exposed to dangerous work conditions or documented harassment, it's unlikely you'll qualify. But it never hurts to check beforehand.

Interested? Getting started is pretty straightforward. If you have an Employment Insurance case worker, contact them directly and ask about your eligibility. Or you can begin online, at the HRSDC page describing this initiative (www.hrsdc.gc.ca/en/epb/sid/cia/grants/skills-deve/descskills.shtml). You'll learn more about how the program works and where to apply. You can also download or print out a copy of the Application Form.

From there you'll need to pay a visit to an authorized assessment centre. These are local agencies and community outreach centres contracted by HRSDC to administer the funding program. To find one near you, ask your caseworker or call your HRSDC office (a full list is available at www.hrsdc.gc.ca/en/gateways/nav/topnav/ouroffices.shtml).

Once you meet with your SDEB case manager (typically an employment counsellor, or assessor), it will be necessary to receive an employment assessment, develop a Return to Work Action Plan, and complete the Application Form. The employment assessment is where your case manager determines how close, or how far you are from being immediately marketable. Your Return to Work Action Plan shows HRSDC you have thought out the steps that will get you back into the workforce reasonably quickly. And the Application Form asks questions like: 'Do you have any background/experience in the field you've chosen?'; 'What options, in addition to institutional training have you considered in order to achieve your goal?'; Why do you feel that this training is the best option to achieve your goal?'; and 'Have you researched the labour market in relation to employment opportunities in the field in which you wish to pursue skills training?'

The case manager's statement comes at the end of all this before your application can be assessed. Kingdon offers a few tips on how to increase your chances of being approved. 'The more work you do upfront to clarify your goals and do research on training opportunities, the better your chances are.' It helps to know what your skill sets are, the kinds of credentials and experience employers in your field are looking for, and which institutions offer courses that meet your requirements. This will help show you're serious, and can shave time off the application process.

For the kind of information mentioned above you can visit an Employment Resource Centre (ERC) nearby. They have computers with Internet access, a library of career material, photocopiers and telephones for free. It tends to be more along the self-service model, however assistance is available. For a list of Toronto ERC's, visit www.hrsdc.gc.ca/asp/gateway.asp?hr=en/on/offices/toronto/tes/erc.shtml&hs=on0. Don't forget to talk with people in your field and read related publications as well.

If you are accepted in the program, you'll still be expected to pay a portion of your expenses, possibly a significant one. Something else to keep in mind is that training is not always the best solution. It might be that you have skills you didn't realize were in demand, or what you really need is extra assistance with your search for work. Your SDEB case manager will work with you to figure out the best way to proceed.

Should you end up qualifying and getting your training subsidized, you'll join the growing trend toward lifelong education. None of us can't take for granted any more that what we know today will be current a few years hence. Since taking courses is becoming the new norm, you might as well get subsidized if you qualify. It's just one more way to leverage the resources we pay for with our taxes. Now that the secret's out, there's no reason to delay.

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