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Middle-aged, doing homework: Life in retraining

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By Amy Rolph, Herald Writer
  • Cherie Evans (in purple) works with her classmates on a final exam in their emergency response class in June at Edmonds Community College.

    Mark Mulligan / The Herald

    Cherie Evans (in purple) works with her classmates on a final exam in their emergency response class in June at Edmonds Community College.

  • Terry Gustavson studies for an exam in an Everett Community College computer lab before the end of spring quarter.

    Mark Mulligan The Herald

    Terry Gustavson studies for an exam in an Everett Community College computer lab before the end of spring quarter.

  • Margaret Metz-Holland identifies a plant during a test with her Edmonds Community College class participating in a field trip at Seattle University.

    Margaret Metz-Holland identifies a plant during a test with her Edmonds Community College class participating in a field trip at Seattle University.

Pink slips have a lot of Washington workers starting over, and many are enrolling in cash-strapped community colleges.
Today: The Herald shares some of those students' stories.
Monday: A look at what occupations are in demand and how retrained workers could breathe new life into the nation's economy.

Like casualties of war, the numbers multiply. The lines at job fairs and unemployment offices are measured in blocks, and the job hunt has morphed into a knock-down, drag-out battle royal.
But there are less obvious mileposts that mark the nation's road through its bleakest recession in decades. There are the waiting lists in financial aid offices, the backlog of applicants for government-funded worker retraining. There are classrooms filled with middle-aged students who laugh nervously and grimace at each other when they get their first homework assignment in decades.
“I hope I can remember how to do this,” the laughs seem to say. “It's been a long time since I last sat here.”
State projections show that 15,000 students will enroll in Washington's community college retraining programs starting this fall, more than double the head count from two years ago.
In Snohomish County, hundreds more than last year will enroll in retraining. And likewise, community college systems around the country are stretched to the bursting point to accommodate laid-off workers wanting to reinvent themselves while the economy mends.
Some have money from the state for retraining. Others have headed back to colleges, universities and technical schools on their own dime, looking at training or a degree as an investment that could help pave a path back to where they once were — or to an even better place.
They're older than the general student population. Two out of three students getting retraining in Washington have already turned 35. And some say they're a little more streetwise, too.
They're a generation of students who came late to the realization that college degrees aren't just for white-collar workers and academics. But they're also a generation that's likely to pave a road out of the recession.
Here are three of their stories.
Cherie Evans: Another door opens
It was Christmastime. Cherie Evans remembers her office was decorated with lights and ornaments and tinsel, just like every year.
When her boss at Tiz's Door Sales in Everett asked her into his office and shut the door, she thought he wanted to talk about the crumbling economy and how a stunted construction industry meant fewer sales.
She was the purchasing and operations manager, after all. There wasn't any reason to expect he wanted to say anything else.
She didn't know where he was heading until she heard the words that came like a punch in the gut.
“So, I'm severing our ties,” she remembers he said.
So much for the mystery meeting. Still, she had to ask: “You're letting me go?”
Just like that, lightheaded and still disbelieving, Evans was ushered out of Tiz's and out of her industry of 26 years.
Ten of those years were at Tiz's. It's where she met her boyfriend, the half-brother of the man who laid her off. It's where she'd climbed up the ranks, where she'd put in 80-hour workweeks when the company started letting employees go last fall.
She didn't rebound from the loss immediately. But months later, she's OK.
“It took a recession to get me out the door,” she said, not letting on if the pun was intended.
Evans is enrolled at Edmonds Community College, studying to be a patient care technician.
Her choice is a popular one, but not as popular as you might think. State data shows nearly one in five students enrolled in retraining programs last winter were in health services or nursing.
Ask anyone in the college advising office, and they'll commend Evans' choice: It's where the jobs are. Still, more than 30 years have passed since Evans was last in a classroom — high school in Alabama.
Since then, she's been married and divorced. She's raised a 21-year-old daughter who's also in college. And she told that daughter: “If you want to become anything, you have to have a degree.”
That knowledge didn't necessarily make going back to school any easier.
“My first paper was very interesting,” she said with a laugh.
She's kept her grades high; just squeaking by isn't an option. Eventually, she'd like to be an emergency medical technician, then a physical therapist.
But Evans faces an obstacle. She has no income, and though the state has funded her tuition for two quarters, government money is stretched thin — usually only guaranteeing students a quarter or two at a time.
Evans' boyfriend quit the door company after she was let go in December, and the couple is thinking about selling a Mill Creek home to help with living expenses.
They'll rent a small apartment until they're both working, Evans said.
Her boyfriend's father is helping with money, for now. The couple is counting dollars — and counting on better times ahead.
“I told him, it's just another door opening up,” Evans said.
And once again, it isn't clear if the pun was intended.
Terry Gustavson: Jack of new trades
Terry Gustavson is technically retired. He has been for years. But just try paying for home repairs and credit card bills from the comfort of a La-Z-Boy recliner or a beach in Mexico.
Real retirement — vacations to Hawaii, trips to visit the kids — that'll take a few more years. Gustavson, 68, has to pay the bills. Fix up his home in Arlington. Maybe save just a bit more.
First, he has to land a job.
With that goal in mind, he arrives at Everett Community College weekday mornings at 7:30 sharp, a red and black backpack with a broken strap over his shoulder.
He moves fast — quicker than most of the 18- and 19-year-olds who drift sleepily down hallways and sidewalks. He doesn't seem just two years shy of 70, and he doesn't seem like somebody's great-grandfather.
“I know. That's why I've been able to keep working,” he says with a smile. “I don't tell anyone how old I am.”
Gustavson knows he needs to stay young for now. He needs to keep current, updated — hip, even. So, he's learning the nuances of the latest Microsoft Office programs. He's mastering computer-aided design using CATIA, though he remembers when that work was done with ink and paper.
Long-employed as a wire designer by manufacturing companies, Gustavson was laid off. But he didn't let the news get him down.
He said he's been on the receiving side of a pink slip many times — so many that he has to think about the exact number.
“The first time, that was in the 1970s,” he said.
Back then, he was working in California's Silicon Valley, where everyone landed a new job every two years or so. Still, the first layoff was tough. So was the one during the economic downturn in 2001, when both he and his wife were cut from a local aviation company.
That was when he first started school at EvCC. He earned a certificate in Web design, but gravitated to the mechanical field as a contract worker. Now he's updating his skills in a program more in line with his interests: EvCC's Computer Aided Design.
Worker retraining paid for his Web classes, and it's paid for some this time, too. But with unemployment at historic rates and people flooding back to school, state funds don't go far enough.
Gustavson is footing most of the bill for classes, and he and his wife are dipping into her IRA for living expenses.
He received state assistance for classes and books this summer, but his unemployment benefits will run out in the fall. Gustavson isn't sure if he'll be able to stay in class when that happens.
But he understands why money is running out; the reasons sit in class with him every day.
“Here at school — well, most of them are here because of layoffs,” he said.
Margaret Metz-Holland: Not ‘just a job'
Margaret Metz-Holland has suntanned hands, dusty shoes and notebooks full of Latin plant names.
Cytisus scoparius. Oemleria cerasiformis. Abies lasiocarpa.
She's a happy woman.
The 48-year-old Seattle woman lost her job at an art restoration company earlier this year. But it's not the same old sob story — not this recession casualty. There's a curveball this time.
Metz-Holland couldn't be more pleased.
“I can't stand to work at a job where it's just a job,” she said one sunny afternoon while drinking coffee at Edmonds Community College. “You turn around, and there you are for 10 years.”
Eastlake Galleries closed in February, and the next day Metz-Holland “marched my way” into the EdCC registration office and enrolled in horticulture classes.
No, it wasn't exactly a surprise when the shop was shuttered. She knew it was coming — she processed the payroll and knew there wasn't much money coming in.
She had time to prepare, to think, to plan her next step.
“I told my husband, ‘I don't care what it costs or if I'm in debt forever,' ” she said. “I told him, ‘I'm going to school.' ”
Luckily, she's married to a man who (while not ecstatic at the thought of a lifetime of debt) still believes in the adage: If mama ain't happy, ain't no one happy.
He's a commercial dispatcher for Schuck's Auto Supply and keeps cash coming in — a plus for quarters like last spring, when the college's pot of government money ran dry.
Metz-Holland had to pay for her first quarter of classes, and that might continue unless she can demonstrate that her field of study is “in-demand.” This summer, a combination of grants, waivers and loans will cover tuition.
In two years, she'll have her restoration horticulture degree, which she hopes will help her land a job returning overdeveloped spaces to a more natural environment.
For now, she applies for a lot of jobs she doesn't really want.
Metz-Holland applied last winter for the state's Commissioner Approved Retraining program, which allows laid-off students to collect unemployment without having to apply for jobs every week.
Twelve weeks later, she hasn't heard anything, meaning she's still filling out job applications. “With homework and everything, it's really hard to do,” she said.
At least she has a sympathetic support group.
A horticulture class at EdCC is a little like unemployment therapy. The stories swapped around the long lab tables are strikingly similar: first the lost job, then the life-altering epiphany.
There's Brad McGuire, a former middle-manager who's now Metz-Holland's study-buddy. McGuire was laid off from a software company — but says it's OK by him.
Turns out, he'd rather work with plants than sit in a cubicle.
“I've lost 30 pounds since I started,” he said “The only downside is rediscovering test anxiety.”
For Metz-Holland, there wasn't an epiphany, a moment when she just knew. There was just a lifetime of growing things in windowsill pots and backyard gardens.
“I just had a point in my life when I had to do something I'm passionate about,” she said. “Because life is really too short.”
This report was compiled with assistance from the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Columbia University. Read Amy Rolph's small-business blog at Contact her at 425-339-3029 or

Story tags » EdmondsJobsEducation & SchoolsRetraining



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