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Changing Gears is collecting stories about how people are planning ahead in a tough economy, and we’d like your help. What’s on your mind as you plan for what comes next?

Tax forms shelved at a US Post Office. Credit: stevendepolo / Flikr

You can follow this link to share your thoughts.

We want to hear from you – whether you’re planning for retirement, saving for a home, sending kids to college, or just starting a career. If you’re retired, have you had to make some adjustments?

Are things different from what you expected? Tell us what kinds of choices you’re making.

Last fall, Changing Gears devoted a month of reports to exploring how manufacturing has changed. We’re happy to let you know that we won a National Headliner Award for that series. 

Changing Gears took home the third place award for Broadcast Radio Networks and Syndicators. We had good company: the other winners in our category were Bloomberg Radio and CBS Radio. (See the entire list of winners, including our partner WBEZ Chicago.)

Congratulations to all the members of the Changing Gears team: Chicago reporter Niala Boodhoo, Cleveland reporter Dan Bobkoff, Ann Arbor reporter Kate Davidson, and Sarah Avarez, our Public Insight Network Analyst. (Pete Bigelow, who was Changing Gears’ Web editor when the series ran, is now with AOL Autos.) Thanks also to teammates Dustin Dwyer and Meg Cramer.

You can listen to our series here. The stories included: 

TEMPS: Think there are no jobs in manufacturing? Davidson found there are plenty — for temporary workers. Staffing agencies that provide workers to manufacturing plants are finding that they can’t keep up with the demand.

ADVANCED MANUFACTURING: Here in the Midwest, you often hear the term “advanced manufacturing. But what it is? And why do we need to remain leaders in this field? Bobkoff explained in this story.

RON BLOOM: One of the most controversial men in manufacturing during the past few years was Ron Bloom, the Obama administration official who helped oversee the $82 billion bailout to Detroit’s automakers. Bloom recently moved back to Pittsburgh, and he has plenty to say about the role of manufacturing in our national economy. Bobkoff talked to him for Changing Gears.

BATTELLE: Steve Jobs’ death last fall reminded us that everyone has ideas, and very few become actual products. That’s because ideas need a push – and in some cases, a big one, from from science, to become reality. That’s especially true for manufacturers. Boodhoo told the little-known story of Ohio’s Battelle Memorial Institute.

Jennifer Knightstep

Jennifer Knightstep was a researcher in the media archives at General Motors until she was laid off in 2008. Her first reaction was fear.

“I panicked for a few minutes, and then I tried to think of what I wanted to do next,” she says. “There’s not a big demand for archivists in Metro Detroit or anywhere else for that matter.”

So instead of trying to get a similar job, Knightstep decided to go in a new direction.

“I thought maybe I should start trying to do what I really wanted to do, which was be a writer.”

When she filed for unemployment, she learned about No Worker Left Behind, a program in Michigan that offered up to $10,000 in tuition for degrees in emerging industries. NWLB was scaled back in 2010 following federal funding cuts.

When most people think about growing fields, freelance writing is not the first job that comes to mind, but Knightstep made it work.

She went back to school and graduated with her associate’s degree in December 2011. She has been working as a freelance writer since November 2009.

“I figured education wouldn’t hurt in my quest to become a writer, so I took advantage of No Worker Left Behind and I started taking college classes,” says Knightstep.

“I had no idea what to expect. To be honest, I was really afraid…I expected to be the oldest person in the room and usually I wasn’t. I expected everything to be difficult and I expected to feel really strange, but it was wonderful, actually,” she says.

Knightstep is now self-employed.

“I’m a freelance writer slash reporter and photographer for a couple of local publications,” she says. ”Last year I finished my first book…and right now I am working on a story for the society of automotive engineers in Detroit.”

For the newly unemployed, she offers this advice: “Take advantage of whatever programs [you] can and be bold from the beginning. The only regret I have is that I spent that couple of weeks being fearful, being timid. I wonder how different things would have been if I was intrepid and bold from the start.”

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. If you want to learn how to be a part of our network, click here.

JoAnne Jachyra learned about the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program when she was laid off from her IT management job in 2009. TAA is a federal program that funds retraining for workers who lose their jobs to international competition.

Jachyra qualified for the funds and used them to go back to school, something she’s always wanted to do. “Ever since I graduated from Michigan State with a degree in astrophysics I had entertained the idea of becoming a teacher,” says Jachyra. “I had to do a process and say ‘OK well here’s what I want to do, here’s how long it’ll take, here’s how much it’ll cost.’ And part of that is they have a list and they say ‘these are the growing professions that you can get trained in because we feel that you will be able to find a job when you are done with that.’” Teaching was on that list.

Jachyra spent a year in an accelerated degree program – the cost was about $3,000 – that was paid for by the TAA. “It didn’t cost me anything other than time and a lot of effort,” says Jachyra.She got her certification to teach high school and middle school math and physics, but finding a job proved more difficult than she had expected. “I seriously thought being certified as a physics and math teacher I should be able to walk into any school in metro Detroit and have a job,” she says.Jachyra spent several months looking for a teaching position before settling at a charter school in the Detroit area.By most accounts, JoAnne Jachyra is a retraining success story. Her degree program led directly into a teaching job. But Jachyra sees things differently. “Charter school teaching, for anyone that’s ever been a teacher will tell you, it’s challenging and difficult, and certainly for a first year teacher maybe not such a good idea,” she says.

She left the charter school in February and has been substitute teaching since. Eventually, she plans on returning to IT management. Jachyra still wants to be a teacher – if the right job opens up – but her experience so far has been disappointing. “I’m not sure I would have pursued a degree in teaching had I known how difficult it would be to find a job once I got it,” she says.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. If you want to learn how to be a part of our network, click here.

Changing Gears is taking a look at job retraining, one of the hottest topics in our region.

Tomorrow, Meg Cramer reports on a new business-focused approach that calls for companies to to oversee training, so that workers get the skills they need. Later on, we’ll also be looking at how to measure whether retraining is effective.

You can help us figure this out. Employees, have you gotten training to acquire new skills, or to start a new career? Companies, is your business training workers to meet its needs, rather than counting on them to have them?

Take our survey and let us know what works and what doesn’t. We’re also hoping you’ll chat with us about retraining. Tell us how we can get in touch with you.

Credit: flickr user Michael B.

As unemployment numbers around the Midwest get less depressingly horrible we know some people are finding new work. To build skills or get ready for a new industry a lot of people, more than 24 million in 2010, went through government funded worker retraining programs. But these programs have faced a lot of questions and criticism because they haven’t proved they’re very effective.

If you’ve been a part of a worker retraining program we want to know-did it work for you?

Chicago suburbs, by flikr user Scorpions and Centaurs

American student loan debt totals nearly one trillion dollars. These loans break down to about $23,300 owed by each borrower. Changing Gears has been reporting on the effects of that debt and what it takes to pay it off.

We want to know how student debt affects big purchasing decisions. Are you ready to buy a house? And if so, can you get a mortgage?

Tell us how student debt affects your housing plans.

Spring training is underway, and avid Detroit Tiger fans are counting the days until April 5, when it will be Opening Day at Comerica Park.

Comerica Park, by Micki Maynard

This year, there’s a lot of attention surrounding the team, which stunned baseball when it snapped up slugger Prince Fielder. Opening Day tickets sold out in 45 minutes last Saturday, and demand for regular season games is soaring, which will bring a lot of people downtown.

And the impact will be even greater if Tigers’ owner Mike Ilitch get his dream of a World Series.

We want to know what the Tigers mean to you. Are you a lifelong fan, or did you only catch Tiger Fever last year? What are your memories of Comerica Park (or as some of us won’t stop calling it, Tiger Stadium)? How do you think the interest in the Tigers will affect Detroit?

Take our survey. Send us your thoughts, memories, photos. We’ll feature them every day during Opening Day week.

Then re-live last year’s Opening Day. See you at the ballpark!

When we asked what cultural traditions people have kept or lost, many wrote about the difficulty of fitting into American culture while staying connected to their own roots.

Yen Azzaro tried to learn her mother’s native Mandarin Chinese in college, but never mastered it. “I never learned how to read or write Chinese. Sometimes I feel inadequate or guilty about this,” said Azzaro. “But most of the time I just feel relieved that I understand some Chinese. Many people my age worked so hard to assimilate; they lost all knowledge of their native tongue,” she said.

Those who hold on to traditions often have a way of adapting and updating them to reflect new cultural experiences.

Sausage making in Anette Kingsbury's family. Credit: Annette Kingsbury

One way to track those changes and adaptations is through the way people cook and share food. We heard from a Sicilian family that once made 700 cannolis and another that (enthusiastically) honors their Sicilian roots by making hundreds of sausages.

Our culture project incorporated many stories from people who keep up a family food tradition and put their own spin on it.

Sharlene Innes writes: “The most important Polish tradition for my family and for me is Wigilia, the Christmas Eve celebration. We come together to share a meal which now includes items like a large nacho prepared by my Mexican-American brother-in-law.”

An updated tradition can help to make culture more meaningful for younger generations. Rosalyn Park hated stuffing mandu as a child. Eventually, though, making mandu became a special, Christmastime tradition that Park looks forward to. It’s now a way for Park’s family to come together once a year.

“Over the years, our Christmas making mandu tradition has expanded, and we now invite close friends to participate in the event, open a bottle or two of wine, and make merry. The big bowl would come out, the mandu skins laid forth, and we’d sit down for another several hours of mandu-making,” said Park

Park’s mother added a twist to keep everyone in the mandu-stuffing spirit. “My Buddhist-born, now Catholic mother forced us to wear Santa hats. Never mind that our foreheads itched under the synthetic white fur, we were her “elves” and this was how we now did it.”

Stuffing mandu with the Park family. Credit: Roaslyn Park

Some culinary traditions are difficult to keep, no matter how hard you try. Like a foreign language, complex recipes can become easier with total cultural immersion. We heard from many children of immigrants who never learned these skills as they grew up in the U.S. Most regret it.

Brigitte Kirchgatterer has found her mother’s German recipes challenging to master. “My Mom passed in 2005 and she really was active in trying to retain a lot of the Germanic Cooking,” said Kirchgatterer. “I find I just do not have the time to prepare the same labor intense or process laden dishes even though I miss them. It makes me very sad.”

You can read more about food, traditions, and cultural adaptation from our collection of family stories. Or, you can share your family traditions with us.

Dianne Johns and her sister Holly dressed up in babushkas to make kaik

As part of our Your Family Story series, we collected recipes that have been passed down within families.This is our contest winner, Dianne Johns of Lansing is our winner. We’d still like your stories about family culture and traditions. Add it here.

The very best traditional Lebanese Easter food is the Easter cookies. They are called kaik. This is a two syllable word with a very subtle distinction between the syllables (kah-ick). The pronunciation is so similar to a slang word for a part of the male anatomy, that we rarely use it around the non-Lebanese.

I had never made kaik before. My sister, Holly made it once with the Lebanese-born cousins. They wouldn’t let her do anything but cook because they were afraid she would mess it up. Their cookies are perfection.

My sister Holly, her sister in law Linda, my friend Susie and I all got together at Holly’s house with my mother’s recipe, Linda’s experience, 10 pounds of flour, huge packages of mashed dates and walnuts, and a “What the hell” spirit. We were joined by another sister,Carol, and another Lebanese friend, Dolores, who is also an expert.

Living in Michigan is a real advantage when you are making Lebanese food. There are more Arabs in Michigan than any other state, so the ingredients for Lebanese food are usually available. These cookies call for finely ground mahleb (cherry pits) and anise. No problem. Just go to the bulk food store on Pennsylvania Avenue.

This recipe makes around 50 fairly large cookies.

5 pounds flour
6 sticks of butter (rendered)
1 yeast packet
3 cups of sugar
2 tablespoons mahleb (ground sour cherry pits)|
2 tablespoons ground anise
4 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup of warm water
1 pound walnuts
5-13oz. packages of mushed up dates
Melted milk and sugar for glazing

Advance Preparation
Before we begin, there are a few things I should explain . . . like mahleb. Yes, it is actually ground sour cherry pits. Now, I’m not certain how available this valuable ingredient is, but do not make the cookies without it. Living in Michigan, it is easy to find all of the ingredients you need for middle eastern food.

One more thing about the dates. They sometimes have pits or parts of pits in them, so you need to go through them with your fingers and check for pits. This year I found one whole pit and one piece of pit . . . not a lot, but not pleasant to bite into either. It is a really messy job.

Crushing the walnuts can be tricky. You want them in small pieces that you can actually feel when you eat the cookies. My sister’s little food processor worked great and if you don’t have one, a rolling pin works well too.

Making The Dough
Combine the flour, salt, mahleb, and anise and mix well. Heat the milk and sugar until the sugar is dissolved. Add milk and sugar to flour mixture and mix well.
Render the butter. Here we get into discrepancies in recipes. Our recipe calls for 1 1/2 cups of rendered butter. Linda uses 3 cups in hers. I can’t say that we noticed a difference in taste, so use your own judgment.

Add warm butter to dough and mix well. Pour a half cup of warm water over yeast.
Add the yeast to the dough and mix well. Cover the dough and let it rise for 3 hours. Some of us made our dough the night before (so we wouldn’t
have to get up early to do it). It did seem as if that made the dough a little tougher to work with, but the resulting cookies were fine.

Making the Cookies
Take a portion of dough and roll it into a log. Then cut pieces off the log and form into flattened balls. Roll a flattened ball into a round shape about 5 inches across. If you want smaller cookies, fold them into a semi-circle.

Put the date/nut mixture on the piece of dough spreading it nearly to the edges. Roll out a second piece of dough and place on top of the date mixture. Roll some more to make the cookies as thin as possible. We found that if you don’t roll them after putting the top dough on, they puff up too much and end up looking like hamburgers instead of kaik.

Pinch the edges of the cookie like you pinch pie dough. You need to pinch the edges tightly; otherwise the two layers will separate when the cookies are baked. Decorate the cookies. We have used a variety of implements . . . a potato masher, the bottom of a cut glass bowl, a mallet, some stained glass flowers. basically anything we could find to make a pattern.

Poke holes in the dough. If you don’t poke holes, the dough will puff up too much when baking. A quill is the traditional tool for this task, but a fork will do if there are no feathers handy.

Baking the Cookies
Place the cookies on un-greased cookie sheets and bake at 425 until the bottoms are lightly browned. Then broil the tops until golden brown. Brush with a warm mixture of sugar and milk when you take them out of the oven. That makes the tops shiny.