Displaced Workers Finding Edge Through Education

November 03, 2011 | Dekalb Daily Chronicle |  Link to article

Russ Woods remembers the exact day and time he found out he had lost his job.

Woods of Sycamore had worked for 25 years as a plant manager for a millwork facility - a career he'd entered right out of high school. He was told in December that he had been laid off because of the downturn in construction jobs.

After two weeks of applying to just about every job he could think of, he realized he needed an edge to get ahead.

To sharpen his skills in a tough job climate, Woods, 52, decided to enroll as a student at Kishwaukee College.

"Every job you work for now requires a degree," Woods said. "That's what companies are looking for these days. You have to give them what they want."

Woods' story isn't unusual at Kishwaukee College.

More adults who have been displaced from the workforce, or have never before been in the workforce, are polishing their resumes with a college degree in hopes of finding a job.

Kishwaukee College officials have seen enrollment numbers for adults over the age of 30 increase in recent years. That number has jumped from 1,445 students in 2009 to 1,630 in 2011.

Woods feels his years of work experience will translate well to the marketing and management degree he's now pursuing. After he graduates in May, he plans to go on to a four-year institution for his bachelor's degree. When he was applying to jobs, he realized he was competing against college graduates, and sometimes graduates with master's degrees, who were seeking entry-level employment.

According to a June 2011 study by the Center for Law and Social Policy, unemployment among workers with a high school diploma or equivalent is at 9.7 percent, compared to the unemployment rate of 4.5 percent among workers with a bachelor's degree or higher. The same study shows that the number of adults ages 25 and older are anticipated to enroll in college at twice the rate as traditional age students from 2009-2019.

That trend is directly linked to the poor economy, said Kristine Adzovic, coordinator of adult-student connections for Kishwaukee College. She runs a grant-funded program that serves many older adults, single parents and, lately, many displaced homemakers.

"That's been a more recent trend," Adzovic said. "We've served a lot of displaced homemakers whose husbands have been laid off or were in the construction business. It creates a whole new challenge for the family unit."

Displaced homemakers are defined as anyone who is trying to enter the workforce after a spouse was disabled or unemployed, because of a deceased spouse, or a divorce.

Adzovic said when people contact her, they're in crisis mode. But she tries to stress that they have options. Many older students can transfer their skills from the workforce to different career fields, she said.

Another trend Adzovic has seen is that women and men are pursuing non-traditional careers for their gender. An example of that would be men pursuing nursing degrees and women pursuing criminal justice degrees.

Quincy Kimble of DeKalb was working on an assembly line that produced car seats when he got laid off in 2009.

"It was a time when the economy got really bad," he said. "In that economy, the car industry really suffered."

Kimble, 25, started working right out of high school and stayed with the company for three years. Though he'd been out of school for years and was a little nervous about taking college courses, he enrolled in Kishwaukee College's nursing program with the hope that his degree will make a good job more accessible after he graduates in May.

"I'm trying to do everything possible, with grades, certificates and awards, to increase my chances," he said. "There's such a high demand for male nurses."

Adzovic said her office this year is serving a record number of adult students who are taking advantage of the perks offered through the adult education program, which include a textbook rental, child care stipends, tuition scholarships, free bus passes and mileage reimbursement.

She said in fiscal year 2011, 103 students received direct support, which is up from 83 students the previous year, and up from about 50 students in 2009.

"I'm continually inspired by our adult students and their courage, perseverance and resilience. It's been a real pleasure to watch them overcome defeat," Adzovic said. "It's not easy to do, but they do it."

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