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Teaching Wall Streeters to Think Small After the Big Fall

Janet Whitman,|Special to CNBC.com
Monday, 15 Aug 2011 | 10:09 AM ET

Across the country, laid off white-collar workers are scrambling to reinvent themselves, increasingly with the help of job retraining historically reserved for their blue-collar brethren.

Source: SUNY Levin Institute

The shift comes as many high-paying jobs — particularly those in the boom-bloated financial services sector — aren’t coming back as the economy recovers.

Rabindran Abraham didn’t bother looking for work on Wall Street back in 2009 after he got laid off from his job in structured finance at HSBC. No one was hiring.

The Harvard University grad's search for employment elsewhere was leading nowhere, too, when a year later he heard about a free job-retraining program to help out-of-work Wall Streeters.

Abraham was skeptical that a two-week “boot camp” would help him — a mid-40s, mid-career professional — refashion his career.

But he left the JumpStart NYC program, which included a ten-week internship, with a full-time job as partner at LCN Capital Partners, a fledgling private-equity firm specializing in corporate real-estate finance.

“On paper, to be frank, I was a bit of a difficult hire given my age and where I was in my career and given the industry I was coming from,” says Abraham, a Ph.D. candidate in economics at MIT. “But I was confident that if I got an opportunity I would be able to demonstrate my abilities.”

After peaking in November 2007, employment in New York’s finance and insurance sectorplunged by some 12 percent, or 42,400 jobs, before bottoming out in January 2010. The sector has gained back 12,500 jobs through May 2011.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who got his own start on Wall Street, pushed for the jobs program as a way keep those unemployed financial services professionals from fleeing, while at the same time helping them shift their careers into entrepreneurial positions that could give the city’s economy a boost.

Other cities and states have come up with their own initiatives over the past couple of years to help deal with the unusual onslaught of displaced, higher-skilled, higher-salaried workers — a big worry because of the lost tax revenue and tighter purse strings.

Californians, for instance, can apply for government funding to go back to school at the University of California to earn certificates in dozens of different programs.

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The college has seen a surge in demand from people looking to shift from one industry to another, says Cathy Sandeen, dean of UCLA Extension.

“In previous downturns where you’d see it hit more at the manufacturing level, you would see more activity in California at the community colleges. Now at organizations such as ours we’re seeing an upturn in the 'career-changer' market," she says.

Forensic accounting and global sustainability are among some of the popular options, says Sandeen.

While the economy may be on the mend, demand for retooling professional job skills remains high, says Helene Rude, director of educational programs at SUNY Levin Institute, which runs JumpStart NYC.

The program, funded mainly by the New York City Economic Development Corp., has been extended for another couple of years to offer at least seven more “boot camps” and also has expanded beyond financial services to other professions.

“We’re hearing of a horrible trend: that the unemployed need not apply,” says Rude, who joined the Levin Institute after losing her job as an executive educator at International Business Machines after 24 years. “This program is a way to differentiate [yourself]. It’s much more interesting than, ‘Oh, well, I worked at Bear Stearns until they collapsed.'”

Back To Work - A CNBC Special Report
Back To Work - A CNBC Special Report

The program is more of a catalyst than matchmaker.

Only around eight to ten of the 50 participants in each session usually end up with full-time jobs following their educational fellowships.

But after six months to a year, half of the participants get back on their feet, either by landing jobs at startups, starting their own businesses, doing consulting work or re-entering the corporate world.

Abraham, who went through the program last year, was one of the fortunate few to get an offer for a full-time position midway through his consulting internship.

“It’s a way for an employer to get to know you without any obligation on their part,” he says. “The notion is that you can bring a lot of experience that’s likely to be very helpful to a smaller company or startup that might not have that professional skill set.”

Abraham has since been back to the program — but on the other side of the table, looking for potential hires for LCN.

“We found someone that we really like who is working as a consultant now for us,” he says.

And if Abraham hadn’t gone through the JumpStart program?

“My guess is if I were employed it would be at a large company or in the public sector in Washington and I’d be punching the clock,” he says.