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Durbin touts work of job training centers in Elgin, elsewhere

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbtalks with SandrLandrum ElgTuesday Illinois WorkNet Center Elgworkforce development office thoffers full-service employment resources. | Michael Smart~Sun-Times

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin talks with Sandra Landrum of Elgin on Tuesday at the Illinois WorkNet Center in Elgin, a workforce development office that offers full-service employment resources. | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 11, 2011 12:44AM

ELGIN — Some in Washington, D.C., want to see the programs like those operated at Elgin’s WorkNet Center cut as part of reductions in the federal budget.

That won’t help get the nation’s economy — and its people — back to work, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said Tuesday as he met with clients and workforce training leaders at the Elgin unemployment office.

“This is a big debate in Washington — whether or not to keep these open,” the Illinois Democrat said. “With so many people unemployed, we have got to create an opportunity for folks to look for jobs, be retrained, and to move back into the workforce.”

Clients who have received help getting retrained include Maria Delgado, one of four who shared their stories at the event.

She lost her job as a claims examiner in the insurance industry when the work was sent to India. Because her job was shipped overseas, she was eligible for federal grant dollars to help her go back to school, and she is attending Aurora University to get her degree in psychology. In the meantime, she also is working at the WorkNet Center as a career resource counselor, helping others find work or become retrained to work in new fields.

Unemployment benefits — from the weekly checks to the education help — are vital, Durbin said.

He thanked “a former Illinois state senator, now president of the United States, (for) pushing for the unemployment benefits. I can’t tell you how many people that I run into who are negative about extending unemployment benefits,” Durbin said.

“The argument they make is as long as they are getting that check, they are not looking for a job,” Durbin said. While unemployment assistance helps, he added, “it is hardly enough to have the comforts of life.”

Negative views about jobless benefits upset Robert Thomas, another man who had lost his job and is now getting heating and air conditioning training at Elgin Community College. “Thank God for the money that you get, but it’s very hard” to sit at home, Thomas said, adding later that he’d “worn out a couch” while looking for work and watching CNN every day. “The key is trying,” Thomas said.

It’s important, Durbin added, to make sure those being retrained are getting that education and schooling from the right source. “There are schools, and there are schools,” he said, adding “you can’t go wrong with a community college.”

About 10 percent of all people in higher education are attending for-profit institutions, and about 25 percent of all federal aid for education is going to those schools, Durbin said. “They are sucking up the money for Pell grants and student loans.”

But at the end of their education, many of those people cannot find work in their fields, he said. The default rate for those schools — for people who are unable to pay off their student loans — is 44 percent just three years after graduation, Durbin noted. Accreditation is important, he added, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Some schools are self-accredited, Durbin said. “How do you know when it’s a phony?”

The workforce centers have lists of approved providers, said Tracy McDonnell, executive director of the River Valley Workforce Investment Board. But they can only make suggestions, she said, and it is up to the consumer to make their own choices about which school to attend.

Those who shared their stories Tuesday are proof the help is needed, Durbin said.

“When I hear all these people talking about cutting this program, I am thinking, ‘Where else would these people turn?’ ” Durbin said.

“These stories … are inspiring,” he said. “These are people who were desperate to find work, and they found it.

They are doing good things with their lives. As one of them said, ‘We are no longer drawing unemployment — we are paying taxes.’ That is a good thing. I want to make sure that as we cut spending, we do not cut job training. And this the kind of counseling that helps people get back into the workforce.”

But the other side of the coin — getting American businesses to hire again — doesn’t have an easy solution, the senator said.

“It is not something we can do with one law or overnight,” Durbin said. “There are a lot of issues in our economy that are going to take some time to resolve. One out of four Illinoisans is in a home with their mortgage underwater.

“So many families are deeply in debt and are being very careful not to buy things because they want to get rid of the debt. That is the right thing for each family, but … it means the economy doesn’t grow as fast as you want it to,” Durbin said.

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