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Dislocated workers attend community colleges to change careers

WAHPETON, N.D. - Losing her job was the push Brenda Dye needed.

Dye, 48, always wanted to go back to college, but the single mother didn't think she could swing it while working full time.

Then she was laid off from her job as a security guard for Imation, which led to her enrolling at the North Dakota State College of Science.

"This just pretty much handed me the opportunity," said the Breckenridge, Minn., woman.

Dye is among an increasing number of dislocated workers turning to community colleges to change careers or brush up on their skills.

With additional resources available through the American Recovery Act, now is a good time for dislocated workers to seek additional training, said Theresa Hazemann, team leader for Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program.

"This is an opportunity," Hazemann said. "Take advantage of it, upgrade that skill."

Dye, who worked for Imation for 15 years, most recently as a security guard, is pursuing a two-year degree in health information technology.

Because her job was relocated to another country, Dye qualifies for Trade Adjustment Assistance that pays for her tuition.

Dye is taking 15 to 18 credits a semester in addition to summer classes so she can complete the program in two years, which is required so she can receive the assistance.

One adjustment was remembering how to study.

Her previous college experience was when she was "crazy and 18," attending a Nebraska business college for one year.

Becoming a student again in her 40s was scary, but she found a group of fellow students to study with, including some who also were laid off from Imation.

"We push each other through," Dye said.

At Minnesota State Community and Technical College, Kyle Johnston works one on one with students who are dislocated workers.

Johnston, enrollment manager for the Fergus Falls campus, said students often want to enroll in classes right away, but he advises them to first have a game plan.

It's important for students to check with financial aid counselors to see what type of assistance they may be able to receive and work closely with advisers for help scheduling classes, Johnston said.

The Fergus Falls campus is attracting dislocated workers from about a 50-mile radius.

One such student, Tom Wegner, 51, used to coordinate international shipping for a manufacturer in Shakopee when competition from overseas manufacturing led to the elimination of his warehouse job.

He relocated to Vining, Minn., where his parents retired, and is now working on a registered nursing degree.

This summer, he is not taking classes, but working at the college through a work study program as a custodian. He also receives assistance from Rural Minnesota CEP and a federal Pell grant.

Johnston expects to see even more dislocated workers this fall.

Wegner said it's challenging to "get your head around school things" again, but he encourages other dislocated workers to consider going back to college.

"Don't be afraid," Wegner said. "It's not as hard as you think."