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Cathlene M. Turnburke lost her inventory control job to a computer.

Elaine Hargraves' job inspecting eyeglass lenses went to Mexican workers.

And Rex Merkal's position as a midlevel manager at an insurance company just doesn't exist anymore.

At a time in their lives when they expected to be secure in their chosen careers and looking forward to retirement, all three Tampa Bay residents are starting over again, learning new professions.

But this time, they, and many others like them, are getting help from U.S. government-funded programs that have been retraining the unemployed. Almost eight out of 10 participants walk out of the programs with a job.

Thanks to the programs, Turnburke, 37, just graduated from nursing school.

Hargraves, 46, has begun classes to become a medical transcriptionist.

And Merkal, 51, is brushing up on his computer skills, hoping that will help him land a new job.

The government provides money to retrain qualified people who are long-term unemployed, underemployed, or whose jobs were eliminated because of changes in technology or the economy. Another federal program provides training for workers whose jobs went to other countries after the North American Free Trade Agreement was ratified.

"We can offer them up to a two-year program" of retraining at local junior colleges or trade schools, said Jean-Marie Moore, director of one of three government-funded job-training centers operated by the Pinellas Private Industry Council under the name Workforce.

As corporations downsize, consolidate and fail, the number of people who need such retraining is growing.

"We are seeing more and more dislocated workers," said Moore. People who had made their living in industries such as banking, manufacturing, defense and midlevel management have been streaming through Workforce's doors. By the time they arrive, often several months after losing their jobs, they are in bad shape emotionally and often financially.

"Many, many of them are being unemployed for the first time in their lives," Moore said. "They are going through a severe ego clash."

By the time they leave, many have better job-hunting skills and new work skills that should make them employable again. "Nearly 80 percent of the people who leave our program leave employed," Moore said. Last year, nearly 250 people completed the dislocated worker program in Pinellas County.

One reason for the program's success is the type of people who come looking for help.

"Their motivation to be employed again is incredibly high," Moore said. "They do very well in school. Their work ethic is so strong."

Another is that job counselors in the program steer participants toward professions that are in demand.

But even with the government's help, it's not an easy journey for participants. While the program provides tuition money, the students still have to find a way to pay other bills while they go back to school.

Cathlene Turnburke, for instance, had a bumpy two-year ride through nursing school.

A few months into her first year, she got pregnant, unexpectedly. Then both her grandparents moved in because they needed some looking after. One died and the other had to be moved to an adult congregate living facility.

Turnburke's daughter, Caitlin, cooperated by being born Jan. 2, 1995, during the Christmas break. But that left Turnburke only six days before she had to be back in class.

The financial pressures of living on only her husband's salary and without health insurance intensified when Caitlin was born. Then husband Bob Turnburke, a tile setter, was in an auto accident last October that left him unable to work.

Despite it all, Turnburke managed to graduate with honors in December.

"We wouldn't have made it through" without Workforce, she said.

Turnburke plans to reimburse the program one day for all her tuition.

"That is an obligation that I feel," she said. "I need to give it back."

The government will probably get its money back anyway. A study by Florida TaxWatch, a non-profit research group, shows that the displaced worker training programs indirectly repay the government $1.71 for every $1 spent.

By getting people back to work quickly in adequate-paying jobs, the government saves money it would have spent on social services and generates more revenue from income taxes.

"In general, these people have always been taxpayers, so when they are unemployed the economy takes a double whammy," Moore said.

While many people who come to Workforce would have eventually found new jobs on their own, the program probably helps them find higher paying jobs more quickly, Moore said.

As part of the program, qualified participants are tested for aptitudes and job preferences, told about jobs that are in demand now, then funneled toward whatever organization can provide the training they need. Some may already have skills that are transferable to other professions. In those cases, counselors help steer them toward the right companies and provide help with job-seeking skills such as resume writing and interviewing.

Ray Merkal wishes he had discovered Workforce earlier. He lost his job as vice president of customer service for Western Reserve Life Insurance in Largo in July 1994.

Then he started selling insurance only to discover that he was not cut out for sales work. Now he is taking computer classes at Workforce that he hopes might make him a more marketable job candidate.

Workforce helps people choose their new careers carefully, with an eye toward finding professions that suit the person and have a future.

Getting a chance to retrain for careers they like better is one of the few positive things to come out of unemployment, program participants said.

Some said they fell into their old jobs without thinking about whether they really were suited for the profession.

Joseph Chumbley said he had never planned to become a researcher for Florida Power Corp. It just happened over time.

"It may not necessarily be anything that you are interested in, but the pay and the benefits are good," he said.

Being laid off last year has allowed Chumbley to go to school to become a licensed practical nurse.

Still there have been tough family times. His wife, a hairdresser, works two shifts to pay the family's bills.

The pressure "never seems to let up," Chumbley said. "But I think we can get through it."

Workforce counselors provide some budget counseling and refer participants to other community organizations that can help. But just getting the tuition paid overcomes a big obstacle for many.

Elaine Hargraves said she couldn't have afforded to go back to school to become a medical transcriptionist if it weren't for the government's help. She was laid off from her job as a lens coating inspector at Essilor of America in September.

Age discrimination is also a big barrier for many people in the program.

"Age discrimination is alive and well," said Moore. And it becomes a problem for some people in their 40s.

Being in the job market at 46 "is the scariest," Hargraves said.

"It's very well covered up, but it's out there," Merkal said. "You can feel it. You have a hesitance to fill out that resume with 25 years of service."

Betty Petersen, 59, worries about age bias too.

She lost her job at Unisys in October 1994 after more than 24 years there.

The former buying analyst has just finished training to become an administrative assistant and is out pounding the pavement for a job at an age when many of her contemporaries are thinking of retiring.

But Peterson wants and needs to work. Still, she doesn't plan to take just any job that comes along. She never wants to be out of work again, so she plans to check on the financial stability of any potential employer.

And there's one question she asks at every interview: "Have you had any layoffs?"


Pinellas Private Industry Council (570-3252 or 570-3262)

Workforce Development Council of Pasco County (847-5800)

Hillsborough County Employment and Training (excluding the city of Tampa): 744-5547

City of Tampa Private Industry Council (274-8339)

Citrus-Hernando Private Industry Council (352-754-5177)

These occupations are in demand in the Tampa Bay area, according to the Pinellas Private Industry Council

Home Health Aide

Nursing Assistant

Licensed Practical Nurse

Registered Nurse

Patient Care Attendant

Medical Assistant

Medical Lab Technician

Radiology Technician

Respiratory Care Technician

Respiratory Therapist

Radiology Technician

Medical Secretary

Medical Records Technician

Psychiatric Aide

Speech Pathologist

Pharmacy Technician

Dental Hygienist

Dental Assistant

Mental Health Technician

Substance Abuse Technician

Interpreter (Hearing Impaired)

Funeral Services

Medical Transcriptionist

Health Insurance Billing and Coding Clerk

Medical Technician

Human Service Worker

Human Service Manager

Management Information Systems

Computer Programmer

Business Software Technician

Secretary (general)

Secretary (legal)

Clerk Typist

Computer Information System

Network Engineer

Correction Officer

Culinary Arts

Heating and Air Conditioning Technician

Commercial Truck Driver

Auto Body Repair

Auto Mechanic

Legal Assistant

Precision Machinist