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Laid Off Workers Find Hope at School
Community college adds late-starting classes to meet growing need
Larry Knutson is silhouetted behind a heavy plastic curtain by the light of a welding torch while working on an assignment in a welding class at Flathead Valley Community College. - Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
Mark Dofelmire graduated from Columbia Falls High School at a time when college didn’t seem necessary. Good-paying jobs like logging, manufacturing and construction were plentiful in the valley, and Dofelmire joined his father, George, at the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company.

After seven total years at the plant, Dofelmire was laid off for the second – and, he thinks, probably final – time last summer.

In hopes of putting his career back together, Dofelmire, 37, has enrolled at Flathead Valley Community College. “There’s a lot of Plum Creekers and aluminum guys here,” he said. “And I guess there will probably be some more coming.”

Dofelmire is among the hundreds of workers here who have been laid off in recent months. Many are returning to the classroom – sometimes with federal financial assistance – in an effort to reinvent themselves and find stable jobs.

Last fall, FVCC’s enrollment climbed 8 percent. Then this spring, the school’s rolls soared to 1,434, an increase of 18 percent or more than 200 full-time students. That’s typical during a recession, Faith Hodges, FVCC’s director of enrollment, said: “Our enrollment generally tracks along unemployment rates.”

During the 2003-2004 academic year, when there had been several plant closures and the county’s unemployment rate rose to 5.5 percent, FVCC saw its highest enrollment ever. Now, with jobs scarce and layoffs increasing here, the college is just 39 students shy of that mark – and may soon surpass it.

Roddy “Mort” Hill runs the welding and metal fabrication program at the college. Of his approximately 60 students this semester, he estimates all but five are laid-off workers back in school to learn new skills.

“A year ago, there were a few retrainers, but it was mostly just people who wanted to learn it,” he said. “Now, they’re about all I’ve got.”

The welding classes filled up quickly this semester, with registration closing long before the deadline. There’s no official waiting list, but Hill estimates there might be another 300 people eager to get started.

In March, the college will add a number of late-starting classes, especially in occupational trades courses like welding and heavy machinery operation. Hodges estimates those courses will add at least another 50 full-time students, setting a new enrollment record.

Dennis Cady is one of the school’s new students. Last fall, he enrolled in heavy equipment and welding classes at age 61.

Cady worked for 35 years at the sawmill in Libby. During his tenure there, he watched the mill undergo three ownership changes and go from 1,400 employees to 13.

The recession means his 401K plan “has gone to heck” and that his retirement fund is disappearing, but he still considers himself “luckier than most.” He’s thrilled to be in class.

“It’s like a second life,” he said. “I always wished I would’ve gone to school.”

As one of “the older guys,” Cady worries more about the generations of laid-off workers below him, who are still struggling to make house payments and provide for their families. “When I was their age, there was always that green light ahead of you saying that things will get better,” he said. “I worry that’s gone.”

Two years ago, with unemployment numbers down, labor was hard to find. Now, qualified employees come in droves, and laid-off workers find that foot traffic at the local Job Service is heavy and the postings are few. It’s an employer’s market.

“There’s nothing out there, period,” said Chuck Reeves, 28, who was laid off last July from CFAC. “Unless you’ve gone to school, then you might at least have a chance.”

“It’s all about that piece of paper,” he added.

Across the building in Hall’s welding class, men ranging in age from their early 20s to nearly 60 are working with ice-blue cutting torches and palm-sized squares of steel. They are practicing for their certificate test in March, when inspectors from Missoula will critique their work and decide if they are ready to reenter the workforce.

Larry Knutson, 48, used to pull pins on the CFAC potline with Reeves, and did utility construction before that. It’s been 30 years since he’s been in a classroom.

“It’s a chance to try for a career using my mind more than my back,” he said.

Going back to school isn’t easy. The classes are hard. The money these workers made at the plant or in the mills is missed. Many of them now do homework at night along with their children.

“When I brought home my first report card, I told my son now he owes me $5 for every ‘A’ I get,” Knutson joked.

For some, federal programs provide relief from tuition costs. More than 100 FVCC students during the fall and spring semesters were receiving federal aid for dislocated workers. But not everybody qualifies, and even more unemployed students may be heading back to class without financial help.

Despite the uncertainty and challenges, there’s a sense of pride from students here. School seems more important – and more pertinent – the second time around. They are happy to be taking a bit of their fate into their own hands, making something of their time off, instead of just collecting unemployment checks. And they can draw on others around them who are grappling with the same struggles.

Hill, their instructor, may provide the most inspiration.

A former welder at CFAC, he was one of hundreds laid off in the round of cuts in 2001. He also took advantage of federal subsidies to return to school, enrolling in FVCC’s building trades program and then starting his own construction business. As construction work slowed down, he returned to the school full-time last year to teach his old trade.

“They’re all worried to death when they come in here, everybody thinking they’re going to lose everything,” Hill said. “I tell them there’s nothing to worry about. If they have will, there’s a way. It may not be what they did before, but they’ll find something.”
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