JANESVILLE

Bryce Aston thought at first he was taking a risk when he bailed from his job at a retail store and jumped into a new job welding metal tanks.

Aston, 21, a Beloit native and now a Janesville resident, had zero experience with a welding gun.

He’d just come out of retail as a checkout lane cashier at a big-box retailer in Janesville. Store management had whittled his and other employees’ hours from full-time to just 19 hours a week, Aston said.

He quit. Then, he started looking for a job outside of retail.

He is among a growing number of people leaving retail jobs—some voluntarily and some not—to reinvent themselves in other segments of the economy.

Nationally, the retail sector has been plagued by hourly cuts plus layoffs. Locally, multiple chain store closings in the last two years have cost hundreds of area workers their jobs, according to state records. Since 2018, state Department of Workforce Development layoff notices show that announced store closings have meant 282 retail employees have been laid off or will be laid off in Janesville, Beloit and Delavan alone.

Many of those layoffs came in 2018 as big-box and department stores such as Boston Store and Toys R Us announced they were going out of business and liquidating.

More job losses followed in the wake of the closures of Janesville stores such as Sears, Staples, Dress Barn and Yankee Candle, and the planned closures of local Shopko and Payless stores. Some of those stores weren’t required to submit layoff notices to the state.

That could peg the number of local retail workers laid off since 2018 at 300—if not 400 or more.

Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board Chief Executive Rhonda Suda said any estimate of retail job losses locally would be a guess.

While it can be difficult to count unemployed retail workers, Suda said she’s been told those looking for jobs after leaving retail run the gamut from sales associates to top store management.

Retraining round

Job losses and job instability in retail are on federal and state workforce officials’ radars.

Suda said federal displaced worker funding now is earmarked for unemployed retail workers.

Her agency in Janesville, which is part of the state Department of Workforce Development, is using that funding to launch a range of retraining programs, offering former retail workers between $15,000 and $20,000 in retraining to help funnel them into new career paths.

Some retail workers, depending on their skills and experience, might need less training than others.

Suda estimated her agency’s program is geared to reach 25 to 50 employees—about 10 to 15 percent of those in the region who’ve lost jobs in retail the last year or so.

Some of those workers will end up in another retail job, but others, Suda said, can make a smooth transition into other sectors because they’ve shown themselves to be versatile.

Many have become accustomed to evening and weekend hours, and they typically have developed so-called “soft skills” from constant one-on-one contact with customers.

The upshot, Suda said, is that even if some segments of retail are scuffling, other local job sectors are hiring, and it remains a job seeker’s market.

Some key hiring areas where training might be applied include administrative work in the medical field, floor and clerical work in warehousing and distribution, and skilled or semi-skilled jobs in information technology, manufacturing and construction.

In those fields, local companies have been hiring heavily or would hire if they could find properly skilled workers.

Suda said the biggest hurdle laid-off workers face might be their own confidence.

“There are people that have been department managers at stores, you know, so they’d have the lady’s section or the men’s section for 15 or 20 years. They’re leaving something that they became experts at, customer service, sales,” Suda said.

“Maybe they’re saying, ‘If I had any value to them, they wouldn’t be closing.’ You’re making these correlations that aren’t exactly logical, but it’s a natural emotion.”

‘Maybe I’ll weld’

Bryce Aston’s former retail employer, he said, is one of the biggest box store chains in the country.

Aston’s transformation from wearing a retail store nametag to a welding helmet, heavy leather gloves and arm gauntlets came in part through some guerilla marketing by United Alloy. He learned more later about his prospects for transforming himself in the job market.

Aston was out and about when saw a recruiting flyer posted for United Alloy—a Janesville fabricator that produces metal tanks, boxes and other equipment. He landed an interview and learned the company would, A), pay him while he trained to do the type of welding the company requires and, B), reimburse his costs at a special welding program Blackhawk Technical College runs in partnership with United Alloy.

Luke Jaynes, United Alloy’s vice president of sales, and Jenna Newcomb, the company’s operations vice president, said the company has hired employees who came out of retail.

The labor market is tight enough that the company and others, they said, are watching the local labor shed with an eye partly trained to layoffs and another eye trained to workers who might be looking for other job opportunities.

United Alloy has hired some who’ve been scuttled from jobs at ailing local retailers, and it’s also participated in recent job fairs held by a northern Illinois automaker as it plans job cuts.

On Saturday, the company is hosting an open house recruitment to show prospective employees a dramatic expansion of its manufacturing footprint at 4100 Kennedy Road that’s brought new coating and painting lines and a boost to more than 100 employees.

“With employees like Bryce, we’re trying to afford an opportunity to be able to take that leap without not having a job. One of the big things you struggle with when we approach people in retail is ‘I need my current job to pay my bills.’ So they don’t want to take that step to go get their skilled trade or education,” Jaynes said.

“So, that’s where we started hiring people that want to be welders that have a good attitude and that want to improve and get a career. We hire them with no weld experience, and their first day they’re paid to report to Blackhawk Tech,” he said.

Aston now works on a line that combines by-hand and robotic welding of large metal boxes built to house mechanical and electrical equipment.

“It was kind of a whirlwind, going from quitting my job and be like, ‘Yeah, maybe I’ll become a welder,’”Aston said. “It was one of those things that could have gone horribly wrong, but it didn’t. I wasn’t just thrown to the wolves. I had an instructor there to help and all the other people in the same program. It was really geared towards (work I’d do) here.” Aston said.

“It was like, ‘All right, let’s learn how to weld.’”

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