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More Laid Off Workers Are Going Back to College

Realtor and mortgage broker Jullisa Kalish thrived in the property boom. Now that it has turned to bust, she is back in college working toward what she hopes will be a more robust career—as a bookkeeper.

"With an accounting degree ... I can work in a lot of different places—any company—as a financial officer," said Kalish, 39, who recently started a two-year business degree at the Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix.

Kalish is not alone. Thousands of workers and professionals are flocking back to retrain at more than 1,100 community colleges across the United States as the recession pulverizes the working landscape.

Community colleges offer low-cost, open-access education to adults seeking retraining or transfer to universities, and count more than 11 million students nationwide. The American Association of Community Colleges say provisional figures show enrollments up between 5 percent and 26 percent in the past six months as the economy dived.

Authorities say that the rise is cyclical—the colleges fare better in a recession when people have more time to study and a clear incentive to remake their careers—although a new pattern is emerging as the downturn deepens.

"We are seeing ... a lot of adult learners," said Norma Kent of the AACC. "Maybe from an industry that's on the wane and are looking for some new skills, or a new kind of a program that will allow them to get back into the job market."

From Cars to Wind Energy

Some 4.4 million jobs have vanished since the recession began in December 2007, as the U.S. economy deteriorates at the worst rate in decades.

As part of a $787 billion economic stimulus bill pushed by President Barack Obama last month, $31 billion was set aside to boost tuition tax credits and increase grants for students seeking further education. For many laid-off workers, the time is ripe to decide what training will likely put them in the best shape for the future. For some, it is quite a leap.

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Until he lost his job in February, Robert Kups, 52, worked as a contractor in Detroit, setting up production lines at wobbling car giants General Motors , Ford and Chrysler for more than three decades.

With uncertainty hanging over U.S. automakers, he has pinned his hopes on a new course offering training to install and maintain wind turbines that starts at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, in west Michigan, in October.

"Renewable energy—everything from wind, to geothermal, solar and tides—is going to be a big factor in our energy use over the next generations ... and I want to get in on the ground floor," Kups said.

Your Job, Your Life | A CNBC Special Report
Your Job, Your Life | A CNBC Special Report

President Barack Obama has made developing alternative energy sources a centerpiece of his administration. He has pledged to double U.S. renewable energy production in three years and wants 10 percent of electricity to come from clean energy sources by 2012.

In Ohio, unemployed construction superintendent Jim Bell has been thinking along similar lines.

Since being laid off by one of the United States' largest home builders, he started a two-year course in electrical mechanical engineering and renewable energies last month at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College.

"In my industry I've never considered it reliable so you pretty much have to be adapting to whatever is thrown at you," said Bell, 45, who will pay about $20,000 to retrain.

Manufacturing to Nursing

Even before the current downturn, some areas of the U.S. labor market—such as manufacturing—have been in a long and painful period of readjustment.

In Union, South Carolina, mother-of-two Crystal Boulware, 38, worked for a textile company that made tassels, cords and decorative braids until 2006, when the firm moved its production facilities to India and laid her off.

After talking with family and career advisers, she opted to study nursing at Spartanburg Community College.

"At first I was like a fish out of water ... It had been over 20 years since I'd been in a classroom environment, and it's all very fast-paced," Boulware said.

But as she prepares to graduate in May, Boulware says her gamble appears to have paid off. With health care one of the few sectors hiring in the battered economy, she will have her pick of several jobs when she qualifies as a cardiac nurse.

"It's wonderful," she said. "It's great to have someone looking for you to work, rather than you looking for a job."

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