Sluggish economy prompts workers to return to college

Workforce Investment Act helps employees pay for college after their jobs are outsourced.
Monday, September 15, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 11:17 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Tod Holdorf waits outside the Atkins-Holman Student Commons on the Columbia College campus. Holdorf is one of a handful of former employees of 3M who are attending college thanks to government assistance programs.

COLUMBIA — Tod Holdorf and Tim Sutton were working in the electronic products division at 3M in Columbia earlier this year when the company outsourced its jobs to Singapore. Both had worked at the plant for 11 years.

A layoff would be disappointing to most, but for Holdorf and Sutton, it could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. After losing their jobs, they discovered they were eligible to receive money for college through the Workforce Investment Act.

In early June, the two enrolled in Columbia College as pre-nursing majors. The shock of being laid-off quickly became an investment in the future.

Holdorf and Sutton are among 111 new students at Columbia College this fall, a number that represents more significant growth than usual for the college. Both are enrolled in eight-week evening classes.

The state of the economy seems to be driving adults back to school.

"When the economy is not as robust as we would like, we do see students returning to school," said John Wilkerson, director of admissions at Columbia College.

"It's good to see students taking advantage of programs like the Workforce Investment Act for the purposes they were designed."

The program, now 10 years old, pays up to $15,000 in educational costs for employees laid off because of outsourcing. Holdorf and Sutton also receive money from the government for living expenses and unemployment compensation.

They began working at the plant in Columbia in 1997 when 3M was in the middle of a hiring spree, Sutton explained.

"They had a reputation for being one of the best-paying manufacturing companies," Holdorf said.

A year ago, the company announced plans to lay off almost half of its employees in Columbia by June 2008.

Sutton was laid off in February; Holdorf lost his job in April.

"For the last five years, we kind of knew this was coming," Holdorf said.

Going back to college has been a different experience, the two men say, but that doesn't mean it's more difficult.

"When I was 20 years old, I was trying to figure out what life was all about," said Holdorf, 45. "I still don't know what life is all about, but now it's easier because I know what I'm doing."

One of the challenges has been getting back into a school mindset.

"When you've been working nine to five," he said, "it takes some practice. You can lose that routine."

Holdorf, who is originally from Massachusetts, studied animal science as an undergraduate at MU and dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. Instead, he joined the work force after graduation.

Selecting Columbia College instead of returning to MU was easy, Holdorf said. The cost per credit hour is lower, and the small student population is a plus.

"I was a face in the crowd at MU, and I was made to feel at home at Columbia College," he said.

Sutton laughed and said the worst part is "being the oldest."

"We tend to be like the teacher's aides," Holdorf said. "We help out the younger students. Tim's like the dad. They love him."

Both find that evening classes fit into their schedules more easily than classes during the day. The option of taking courses online has also been convenient. A significant number of students do blend online and on-campus curriculum, Wilkerson said.

Holdorf and Sutton still must apply for admission into the nursing program at Columbia College, which Wilkerson said is extremely competitive. Only 32 students are admitted each semester.

"It's a very attractive educational opportunity, but there is also a shortage of nursing instructors, so nursing throughout the country remains competitive," Wilkerson said.

Holdorf expects to graduate in May 2010 and is considering a stint in Honduras or Alaska after graduation.

"To be able to help people less fortunate might give me more purpose than staying here in Columbia," he said.


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