Unemployment sends workers back to class
With Illinois’ unemployment rate at a 26-year high of nearly 8 percent, more people are turning to technical schools and community colleges to learn new skills.
They’re turning to places such as the Midwest Technical Institute in Springfield, which reports a significant increase in enrollment of displaced workers, and Lincoln Land Community College, where the head of the truck-driving school says he’s swamped with applicants.
About one-third of lost jobs have been in the manufacturing sector.
Mike Miller learned one day before Thanksgiving that he was being laid off from his job at Kwik Wall Co.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do for a couple of days,” Miller said. “I thought I was going to have to move back in with my parents. At 27, I really don’t think that would have been a good idea.”
After some thought, Miller decided to sign up for a welding course at Midwest Technical Institute. He’ll graduate this year and hopes his welding skills will ensure he’ll have a job.
“You have to know how to do something,” he explained.
Like over-the-road trucking.
“I start a new day class every two weeks and a new night class every six weeks. I’m full right now almost through the end of April. I have people on a waiting list to get in here,” said Bob Howard, director of the truck-driver training program at Lincoln Land.
Information from the Illinois Community College Board indicates that Springfield isn’t the only place seeing this trend.
Spring 2009 enrollments are at near-record levels, up 3.1 percent statewide. LLCC’s increase is about 5.3 percent, and other community colleges are showing even more dramatic spikes. Enrollment at Rend Lake College, near Ina in Jefferson County, has risen 20.6 percent, while Southeastern Illinois College in Harrisburg is up a whopping 31.4 percent.
Steve Morse, spokesman for the Illinois Community College Board, said that because these are spring numbers, he doesn’t believe the increase is due to recent high school graduates going to community colleges instead of traditional four-year universities.
“What I think we’re seeing here … is people who either have lost their jobs or think they might lose their jobs or want to change jobs. I think a lot of this is an immediate response to the economy,” Morse said.
Mike Shelton, a 45-year-old classmate of Miller’s, also lost a job in the manufacturing sector. A Meredosia resident, Shelton had worked for 20 years at the Celanese Corp. chemical plant there.
He is married with two adult daughters.
“We knew for a year and a half that they were going to start laying people off, but we didn’t know when,” Shelton said. “We cut costs and saved (during that time).”
About 80 percent of the displaced workers seeking training at Midwest Technical Institute have families, said Kathy Steinberg, the institute’s president.
“They are looking for something they can enter into within a short period of time. They want something where they can earn a decent wage and have benefits,” Steinberg said.
At Lincoln Land’s truck-driving school, Howard says he’s seeing much the same thing. His daily planner is crammed full of people seeking an interview to get into the class.
“The sad fact of the matter is that when times are at their worst, truck-driving schools are at their best,” said Howard, citing two significant local plant closures.
About 250 people are losing their jobs because of the closing of the Affinia Group brake plant in Litchfield while another 220 are out of work in Jacksonville with the closing of the ACH Food Co. plant.
“Most of these people can’t afford to be off work for two years plus to go to school. So they are drawn to truck-driving school,” Howard said.
Howard’s class is four weeks long, and starting salaries usually range from $30,000 to $50,000.
Despite the allure of the salary, Howard warns that becoming a trucker is not for everyone, especially people with young children.
“It’s mandatory that (prospective students) come in for a one-hour visit with me, and I paint a very ugly picture of driving a truck,” Howard said. “If they have a spouse, I want that spouse to come with them. I want them to hear that if they become a truck driver, birthdays, anniversaries, holidays are gone. You are a modern-day gypsy.”
While the economy is making Lincoln Land’s truck-driving school more popular, Howard said he would trade it all in to get the blue-collar jobs back.
“That’s what fuels the economy. People spending money during their time off is what makes the trucks go down the road,” Howard said.
While the trucking business isn’t immune to the economic downturn, Howard said he is still able to find jobs for his graduates.
“What I’m seeing is the large, over-the-road companies that do the majority of the hiring from us are still hiring. My graduates are getting jobs. We just graduated class of six (a few weeks ago), and they all went to work.”
Steinberg said there also is a strong demand for welders, with starting salaries usually in the $15- to $17-per-hour range.
“Welding is always a hot commodity,” Steinberg said.
Midwest Technical Institute also offers courses in other fields, including heating and air conditioner repair and health care.
Shelton said he got information about Midwest at a job fair, and Miller has a friend who went through the program.
Both are optimistic about new careers as welders.
“I believe that within the next year or two, if you don’t have a skill, you aren’t going to have a job. There are going to be a lot of people out of work,” Shelton said.
John Reynolds can be reached at (217) 788-1524 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Community college enrollment at near-record high
The Illinois Community College board reports that spring 2009 enrollment is at a near-record level, up 3.1 percent from last spring’s numbers — more than 362,500 students this year compared to about 351,800 students in 2008.
Some colleges are reporting even bigger increases:
* Lincoln Land Community College, Springfield: 7,181 students, a 5.3 percent increase over last spring’s 6,817.
* Elgin Community College, Elgin: 10,333 students, a 14.1 percent increase.
* Rend Lake College, near Ina in Jefferson County: 5,108 students, up 20.6 percent.
* Southeastern Illinois College, Harrisburg: 2,364 students, which is a 31.4 percent increase.
* Richland Community College, Decatur: 3,653 students, a 13.9 percent increase over last spring’s 3,208