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Ex-IT worker still trying for federal funds for training to change careers

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — The saying is you can’t fight city hall, but despite some setbacks, one local man isn’t yet ready to concede defeat.

When Donald O’Sullivan was laid off from his job at Maxtor in late 2002, he was told he was eligible for Trade Adjustment Assistance from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

The criteria for being eligible for the money, which is provided to the state by the U.S. Department of Labor, can be summed up in the phrase “if imports cost you your job,” which comes directly off a CDLE handout explaining the program.

“I was eligible for trade retraining, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll go ahead and take advantage of it,’” said O’Sullivan, who had worked as a reliability specialist and later a new-product quality manager at Maxtor.

Little did he know, however, that his request for retraining funds would be rejected by the CDLE, in a decision that seems to contradict the U.S. Department of Labor’s own projections.

When O’Sullivan learned of his pending layoff, he did his research in the DOL’s Occupational Outlook Handbook and found a field in which he felt he would be comfortable and one he thought would offer strong employment possibilities in the future: fee-based financial planning.

According to the handbook, the financial-planning field will be experiencing faster-than-average employment growth through 2012, because of such factors as baby boomers continuing to age, more deregulation in financial markets and more people becoming involved in 401(k) personal retirement accounts.

But the DOL denied any retraining funds to O’Sullivan.

“The denial was based on ‘no reasonable expectation of employment,’” said Ron Busby, trade act coordinator with the CDLE. “That (fee-based financial planner), as a job title, does not have prospects for employment.”

Even more formally, on a notice of determination O’Sullivan received from the CDLE, the denial for training funds was explained this way: “The training requested does not result in employment meeting the definition of employment specified in the guidelines.”

“There’s lots of things you could get training for, but (that) was the one that made the most sense to me,” O’Sullivan said. “It just boggles the mind that a bureaucrat could sit and make that decision for me.”

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, 38 percent of financial advisers are self-employed, and that appears to be what tripped up O’Sullivan.

“They don’t count self-employed as a job,” said Tom Miller, executive director of Workforce Boulder County. “It is a fast-growing occupation, but they don’t list it as having a job with an employer.”

Workforce Boulder County was O’Sullian’s first stop in his pursuit of the TAA funds. “We do not determine the eligibility,” said Miller. “We just distribute the funds when the state determines eligibility.”

O’Sullivan’s initial denial of claims was followed by an appeals hearing overseen by an officer employed by the DOL. There, too, O’Sullivan was met with a “no.”

“I got the feeling from the very beginning that this hearing was rigged against me,” he said.

Despite the fact that he provided about 40 pages of information to the hearing officer, backing up his claims of prospects for employment in his chosen field, O’Sullivan said he wasn’t even sure that information was ever read.

“The judge may have read it in great detail prior to the hearing,” said Bill Thoennes, spokesman for the CDLE.

Busby said O’Sullivan is welcome to re-apply for TAA benefits anytime. “We encourage an individual to explore the retraining benefit again at the earliest opportunity following receipt of the notification of ineligibility,” Busby said.

That’s something O’Sullivan has not done. He said he is still not done applying for retraining for what he sees as a good career move.

He continues to volunteer with SCORE, a state-run program where active and retired executives provide one-on-one counseling to entrepreneurs and small-business owners. His business background includes starting and running his own business and even teaching college business courses for a few years.

His passion to work in fee-based financial planning hasn’t gone away, and he said he’s not yet done with the CDLE. But despite all his efforts, so far, luck has not been on his side.

“I wrote letters to Elaine Chao, the U.S. secretary of labor; I’ve written letters to Marilyn Musgrave; I’ve written letters to ... everybody I could think to write a letter to,” O’Sullivan said. “They all came back with, ‘Well, that’s the breaks, man. So sorry.’”