Job Retraining Programs: How To Get Retrained On The Cheap

adult learning careerBefore you get too eager to line up for the free money, it's only fair to tell you that even if retraining is free, you incur a big cost: your time.

And unfortunately, job retraining programs have a poor record of being worth your time. A 2008 Labor Department study found that some federal job training programs offered little benefits for laid-off workers, according to a New York Times article. That doesn't mean that the program you select won't help you, but it does mean you better be a savvy shopper:

Picking a program: Ask an official from a prospective training program, "Within six months of completing your program, what percentage of the graduates are employed at a living wage doing what you trained them to do?" Follow up with "Would you give me the names of a few of those employers so I can get a sense of what the job market will be like for me when I finish the program?"

Call those employers to learn that and to see if employers hire only a small fraction of graduates who applied, if most hiring is just low-pay temp work, and/or if most of those hired have already been let go.

Sit in on a class. Do you sense that such instruction will make you much more employable? After class or during a break, ask students, "How would you rate the program?" and "What should I know about the program that might not appear in the official brochure?"

More: On-The-Job Training: Jobs That Require No College Degree

With that consumer advice in mind, here are fertile grounds for finding free or low-cost job retraining -- compliments of the taxpayer, corporations or wealthy individuals:

American Job Centers: The Federal government has 3,000 brick-and-mortar American Job Centers (formerly called OneStops) that are, well, one-stop shops for a wide range of federal-, state, and local taxpayer-funded programs offering free or low-cost training plus a panoply of other services for job seekers: from career counseling to resume advice to even child care referrals. To find the one nearest you, go to ServiceLocator.org.

Private scholarships: Corporations and wealthy individuals donate lots of money every year to pay for job retraining. Searchable databases of such grants are at FoundationCenter.org ($19.95 for 1 month's access). Also search general scholarship databases such as the free fastweb.com and scholarships.com. Too, check with local corporations' foundations and service clubs, for example, Lions, Rotary, and Kiwanis. They sometimes pay for local residents' retraining. ExperienceWorks, with hundreds of offices in 30 states, not only provides free job training but minimum wage employment for thousands of low-income seniors.

Community colleges: A major function of the community college is to provide low-cost career training. Your local college(s) may offer programs that prepare you for careers that are in-demand locally. Often, community colleges charge less than $100 a course and if you apply for taxpayer-paid financial aid, you may get even that paid for, plus money for living expenses!

Tax breaks: The tax break most often useful for adults seeking retraining is the Lifetime Learning Credit. As long as your income is less than $63,000 for a single person or $127,000 for a couple, you get a tax credit of 20 percent of $10,000 of your qualified education expenses ... every year!

Military money: If you served on active duty for at least 90 days since Sept. 10, 2001, you and maybe your dependents (!) can get money that may cover all tuition and fees plus a housing stipend! The Department of Veterans Affairs offers more info.

You U: If you're a self-starter, the best option of all may be what I call You U: a self- and mentor-designed combination of individualized reading, classes, volunteering, and entry-level work at the elbow of a pro. Not only is it free, it's totally customized to you: You and your mentor select the content, the pace, and what sorts of ways of learning best fit you -- reading, listening, hands-on, etc.

Start by asking one or two people who do your desired work for suggestions for what you might read, classes you might take, conferences you might attend, places you should volunteer or take an entry-level job, and even whether you might work as his or her assistant. Keep a record of all you've done at You U and submit that along with your job applications and you may be more impressive than someone who received the often theoretical training at a university.

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