Back to school for pulp mill crew

By Sharon Michael

The Bellingham Herald

BELLINGHAM — Barb Backstrom went to work at Georgia-Pacific West Inc.’s Bellingham pulp mill 21 years ago when she was a divorced mom with a son to raise.

"It was a good job," Backstrom said. "The benefits were great, and the money was good. I’ll never see that again."

Before she was laid off, Backstrom used a front-end loader to fill rock towers with limestone used to cook wood chips in the digester.

Backstrom enjoyed the job and her co-workers. But when the plant laid people off in December and again in February, she "had a really bad feeling." She began to think about what she would do if the plant shut down.

Relocating and leaving behind her son, Chad, daughter-in-law Holly and her two grandchildren — Kyle, 5 and Ashley, 2 — "was not an option," she said. So the Ferndale resident researched paralegal training in hopes of finding work that would give her a chance to stay in Whatcom County.

She began the laborious process of completing an application for training benefits and school admission in March. She registered for classes at Whatcom Community College on May 31, the day after the plant closed.

"I wanted to get on with my life," she said. "It gave me a focus."

Backstrom is one of 115 former pulp mill workers who decided to go back to school when the mill closed.

To get her school plan approved by state Employment Security Department officials, she had to research job opportunities, pay levels and job satisfaction among people working in her chosen field.

She also was required to prepare a budget showing how she would pay bills, living expenses, tuition and books for the next two years.

Backstrom, who has always had an interest in law and in digging up facts, already knew what she wanted to do. Her research told her that the demand for paralegals is a little soft right now, but she said that could change by the time she graduates.

"A lot can happen in two years," she said. She is confident she will find work as a paralegal when she finishes school, because she is willing to commute as far as Everett, more than 60 miles away from Ferndale.

The decision to go to school was easier for her than for people who have children at home, Backstrom said. She will be able to make it through the next two years on unemployment benefits and personal savings.

"I don’t want to use my savings, but I can if I have to," she said.

Training benefits are available through the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Workforce Investment Act, but state unemployment benefits are limited to 30 weeks a year. Bridging the gap between benefit periods is the hard part for some.

Students collecting training benefits are required to maintain passing grades and attend classes regularly. Once a week they submit attendance reports to the state Employment Security Department.

Going to college so long after high school was a little intimidating at first.

"I was really worried about being able to do the work," Backstrom said. But her family and friends cheered her on, and a 4.0 grade point average summer quarter was a boost to her confidence.

"I said, ‘I can do this. It’s no problem,’" Backstrom said, smiling broadly.

Backstrom has fun with her classmates — most of whom are young enough to be her children — and she gives her instructors high marks for their teaching skills and their acceptance of older students.

"School is not for everybody," Backstrom warned. But for her, it was the right decision.

"It’s a great opportunity to learn something new," she said. "These kinds of things don’t come along every day."

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