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Maine Workers Struggle to Upgrade Skills for Jobs of the Future
07/03/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

There are lots of reports that chronicle the decline of certain job sectors in Maine, from manufacturing to fishing to farming. But there are jobs that are increasingly in demand. One of the hot new fields in Maine - and across the country - is health information technology, or HIT. These jobs pay well - anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000 a year for handling and processing electronic medical records. Many low-wage workers in Maine who might one day fill these jobs don't have the education and training they need. But as Jay Field reports, some are taking steps to prepare.

The women show up at The Learning Center in Bangor a little before 9:00 a.m., and one by one, descend a flight of stairs into the white-brick, basement classroom. There's a young single mother, a part-time clerk in a hotel. An unemployed office manager with her own handheld fan, and a developmental trainer working with adults with disabilities, who had never turned on a computer before enrolling in this class.

"So, here's how the test goes. It is a long one," says Shirley Ripley, who teaches the course on health information technology. It's high-tech training. Today's test, though, is old school. Ripley hands each woman an exam with multiple pages of questions. The subject? The medical privacy law known as HIPAA.

"Work on it from about 9:00 to 9:45," Ripley says. "All right ladies. You ready? Use a pencil, don't use a pen."

The women hunch over their tests, as the room goes silent. Aside from the single mom, they're all in their 40s, 50s and 60s - middle-aged women, starting over. There's a lot riding on this year-long course for Penny Demers, who commutes from Dover-Foxcroft, where she used to work at an IGA.

"Oh, I've worked at stores for years," she says. "I mean, I've worked my way up and then get laid off. So you have to start all over again, at the bottom, minimum wage."

The class, Demers says, is her best shot at a job that finally pays her more than minimum wage, "which is not enough to pay my bills. So being here is giving me the opportunity to get a job that's got a higher pay grade, benefits, full time - hopefully."

Maine's unemployment rate has fallen to a four-and-a-half-year low, at just under 7 percent. But income growth in the state has steadily declined in recent years, and shows no signs of turning around. From 2007 to 2011, median household income in Maine dropped nearly 8 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And the slide has continued in the first quarter of this year.

"Just from moving from one position to another, I lost about $4 an hour," says Lori Baillargeon. She's one of the few married women in the class. Her husband works for a concrete company in Veazie. And a few years ago, the family was humming along financially. Baillargeon was making $16 an hour. But then, she lost her job as a trainer for adults with disabilities.

"So now, I'm looking at, if I go to a temporary agency, I'm taking $12 an hour," she says.

Instead, Baillargeon is driving here - twice a week, from Ellsworth - to position herself for a better future. But it's not just Lori Baillargeon who needs to find a stable place in the economy. Maine's economy needs Lori Baillargeon and all the other women in the room to pass today's test, and all the others that will follow.

"Because the medical secretaries are in demand," says instructor Shirley Ripley, who says that demand has been driven by the conversion to electronic medical records.

And a recent study by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce predicts the growth trend for professional technical jobs in health care in Maine is moving upward. Between 2010 and 2020, those jobs are expected to increase by more than 30 percent, the fastest rate in the country. And most of these positions, the study says, will require post-secondary education and training credentials.

But going back to school, in your 50s or 60s, can be tough. "We are working at our own pace in this book here, which we're supposed to be finishing up this week. And I've got two more chapters to go," says Penny Demers. who graduated from Milo High School and hasn't been back in a classroom since. "Yeah, learning how to study all over again - it's been a long time."

Demers isn't alone. Many of the women in this training class went right to work after earning their high school diplomas. But instructor Shirley Ripley says their chances of success will be better if they stick together.

"These guys are going to be together for so long, just the 10 of them," she says. "I want them to be a group, you know, to support each other. Because you're all in the same boat."

Ripley took the women on a recent outing, in part, to nurture this growing sense of community. They went shopping for clothes to wear on the job interviews they hope will be waiting for them down the road.


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