SPRINGFIELD — Interest in GED programs at Ozarks Technical Community College is surging to record levels, with nearly half of the students in the prep classes identifying themselves as unemployed.
The increase comes in the midst of a slipping economy, causing thousands of lost jobs in the Springfield area, leaving unemployed workers with the realization that low-skill jobs that had provided their livelihoods in the past are either scarce or nonexistent.
Many of those working toward their General Educational Development diploma are picking up textbooks for the first time in decades.
"It's hard," said Michelle Gray, 36, whose last job was gutting turkeys at Willow Brook Foods in Springfield. "I'm not good at math."
Jerry Baggett, 59, is taking the preparatory classes and hoping that getting his GED will help him land his next job.
"I'm in the job market, and just about everything requires GED, an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree," said Baggett, whose last job was at Re-Bath of the Ozarks. "I don't have a GED, but I'll have it."
Baggett and Gray are among hundreds of unemployed workers who are bolstering the numbers in the program at Ozarks Technical Community College.
"Depending on the location, we have 10 to 25 percent increase," said Ramona George, director of adult education and literacy at OTC.
There are about 1,900 students in the GED programs, and nearly half of them are unemployed, George said.
GED prep courses are funded through state grants and the community college and are free to students. There are 45 instructors.
Gray, who dropped out of school nearly 20 years ago because of drug and alcohol issues, will take the GED tests in March. She said she regrets her decision to quit school.
"It's the dumbest thing I've done," Gray said.
Since dropping out of school, she has waited tables, worked in a warehouse and cleaned houses before being hired at Willow Brook's evisceration department.
Gray said it was a messy job, but she liked it and it paid $11 an hour. But the job didn't last, and the mother of four was unemployed.
This time she's not going to settle for just any job.
"I want a job I can stay at," Gray said, adding that she would pass the GED tests but is studying to get better scores so she can get a college scholarship.
"A career; I want a career," she said.