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The future looked grim for 35-year-old Tanya Clark in January 2009. That’s when the mother of two learned that she and nearly 200 of her co-workers at Fraser Timber Inc. sawmills were being laid off.
But there was a silver lining down the road. Two years later, Clark, who had worked as a licensed grader at the mill, and more than a dozen of her former co-workers-turned college-students are preparing to start new careers after earning associate degrees from Northern Maine Community College (NMCC).
The 18 students are part of NMCC's largest graduating class and were among 40 displaced workers who started at the college in March 2009. At that time, NMCC offered a special semester of course offerings tailored to laid-off workers. The classes were designed mainly for those in the forest products industry who had received furlough notices in the days before or weeks after the traditional start of the college’s spring semester in January.
Help through TAA
NMCC took the unprecedented step of starting an entire semester off the traditional schedule to assist many of the individuals who qualified for federal Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) through the U.S. Department of Labor. TAA offers up to 104 weeks, or two years, of occupational training and education assistance, with additional benefits provided if developmental courses are required.
“I don’t really think I would have been able to go back to school, or might not have thought of going back, had it not been for this opportunity,” said Clark, who this weekend will earn her degree in medical assisting. “Going back to school made me realize that I could return and not only be successful, but also really enjoy myself.”
The experience was also positive for Guthrey York, 28, who worked in several positions in the seven years he was at the mill. York’s wife was expecting a child at the time of the lay-off notice. That, coupled with a less-than-positive previous attempt at attending college, made him apprehensive.
“At first, I wasn’t sure about going back to school. I never really had been into school much. It took me out of my comfort zone. But, after the first month or so, I really got into it,” York said. “This program gave me the chance to go back to school and build a solid foundation for the future.”
York will earn his degree in electrical construction and maintenance and is a few courses shy of completing a degree in wind power technology. He already has an electrical maintenance job lined up, which he secured after introducing himself to a hiring representative at a NMCC job fair in March.
For her part, Clark has been sending resumes to area health-care employers. She recently interviewed for a job and feels optimistic that she will get an offer.
Top academic achievers
The success of the displaced workers is being celebrated by the graduates, faculty and staff at the college, who have watched the students succeed over the past two years. Many of the former mill workers have become top academic achievers in their respective programs.
“We are especially proud of these students’ academic accomplishments. They are true testament that when properly motivated and supported, people can do extraordinary things,” said William Egeler, dean of students at the college. “All of these individuals came to us after having lost a long-term job, many with academic deficiencies and uncertainties, and the vast majority will successfully graduate with a college degree and a new vocation.”
The students will earn degrees in an array of subjects, from plumbing and heating and residential construction, to business administration and accounting. For some, like 33-year-old Albert Nadeau and 42-year-old Richard Michaud, the mill was once a place they thought they would earn a paycheck until retirement. Nadeau will earn an associate degree in accounting information systems, and Michaud will earn a medical assisting degree.
Michaud and others did receive a call to go back to work at the mill at some point over the past two years. But most former mill emplyees enrolled at the college stayed the course and continued to pursue their degree.
“Had I not had this opportunity and funding assistance, I probably would have stayed on unemployment and maybe have gone back to the mill when they called me back,” Michaud said. “I would have been left wondering if I was going to have a secure job.”
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