This little-known career retraining program helps workers whose jobs have been shipped overseas

Key Points
  • The Trade Adjustment Assistance program helps workers whose jobs have been shipped overseas.
  • With talks over revising NAFTA beginning, the focus will be on whether President Trump can keep his word on getting jobs back to America, or if workers will have to continue to rely on safety nets like the TAA program.
What happens to workers who lose their jobs to trade?

For 22 years, Hugo Nieves worked for American Airlines as shop mechanic, repairing aircraft and working on engines. But in 2011, his career with the airline ended, as American filed for bankruptcy protection and Alliance Maintenance Base in Fort Worth, Texas, closed down under its restructuring the next year.

Nieves' job was shipped off to China, and it was unclear what his next step might be.

"I was stressed because the future was uncertain — I had been at the job for so long, I was at a comfortable pay level," the 49-year-old Nieves said. "Being a single father, I was unsure of what direction I wanted to take in my life."

His workplace experience was also somewhat limited, having been in the same industry for most of his adulthood. Soon after learning his job was being sent overseas, however, Nieves learned that he qualified for job retraining under the Trade Adjustment Assistance program. Today, he's a surgical technologist at Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth, assisting doctors in surgery preparations and young patients as they recover.

President Donald Trump campaigned with a heavy emphasis on bringing jobs back to America. With talks over revising the North American Free Trade Agreement set to begin Wednesday, the focus will be on whether Trump can keep his word, or if Americans will have to continue to rely on safety nets like the TAA program.

The federal entitlement program was launched in the 1970s, and helps American workers who have either already lost their jobs, or may lose them, as a result of overseas trade. Companies, unions, American Job Center operators, including state workforce agencies, or three or more workers can apply together for TAA certification. The state then takes those certifications and works with the U.S. Department of Labor to determine eligibility for workers like Nieves.

Different from unemployment insurance, the TAA program can pay for training for a period of time, for the worker to completely change careers, as Nieves chose to do in pursuing a career as a surgical technologist.

Nieves went back to school in his late 40s to change careers, even taking prerequisite courses in biology and going up against younger candidates for his new position. Despite being in a different field, he says his years in the workforce helped him compete.

"The main motivation is my daughter," he said of his child, now 11. "I've raised my daughter since birth, it's been just me and her. I have to provide a good home for her, so I knew I had to find the right career that was beneficial for both her and me, one where I could make a decent living."

In 2016, the budget enacted for TAA was just over $8 million, and the 2017 full-year funding was at $673 million, according to the Labor Department. For 2018, the department increased its funding request to $790 million. In 2016, an estimated 126,844 workers became eligible for TAA benefits and services, and some 45,000 participants were served in the last fiscal year.

The White House did not respond to CNBC's request for an interview for this story, and the Labor Department did not comment further.

In Texas, the program is administered by the Texas Workforce Commission, whose responsibilities include workforce development and resources like unemployment insurance. The program provides workers with the opportunity to have relocation assistance and resources to make them marketable if they're displaced from a job due to trade. TAA is 100 percent federally funded and employers can participate and apply for certification for their workers at no cost, according to Lisa Givens, director of communications for the commission.

"Really, it's an opportunity for a displaced worker to have a second chance," Given said. "This program is designed to help dislocated workers when needed. We are all about marketable skills, and we are out talking to employers every day about what they are looking for."

In the past few years in Texas, generally around 3,500 workers have been assisted through the program, and out of those who were unemployed in 2015, 73 percent entered employment in the following exit. Employment retention rates for subsequent quarters averaged around 90 percent for the same participants, according to the commission.

American Airlines said job losses like Nieves' due to its bankruptcy filing were "painful, but necessary" to ensure the company emerged from the restructuring process a stronger airline.

"We worked closely with the Transport Workers Union to do all we could to take care of impacted team members, including offering positions at other locations, early-out programs and supporting any training that would help them in future endeavors," spokesman Matt Miller said.

While Nieves is thankful for the opportunity he received to reboot his career under TAA, he's hopeful that others won't find themselves needing to rely on its benefits, if Trump can make good on his word to create and maintain American jobs.

"I believe if Trump keeps his promise of 'America First,' that the jobs won't be shipped overseas," Nieves said. "If he does, I don't think there are going to be as many people eligible for this program."