When RG Steel closed in Baltimore, laying off 2,000 well-paid steelworkers, Community College of Baltimore County offered workers a chance to retool. But college was a tough sell, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. “It’s a group of men who think college is for other people,” says Brian Penn, who runs the college’s heating, ventilating, air-conditioning, and energy technology program.
Generous government education benefits were enough to erase some people’s doubts about whether they belonged. But the paperwork and red tape between students and their tuition assistance prompted some to quit before they had even begun.
To get federal benefits, workers had to become full-time college students, an “intimidating” step, says Jesse Kessinger, who ran the college’s outreach. They had to untangle complex, conflicting county, state, federal and college requirements.
About 170, fewer than 10 percent of the final group of RG Steel employees, have signed up for classes so far. Those who have enrolled favor programs in truck driving, air-conditioning repair, welding and surgical technology.
Ronald Knauff, a third-generation steel man, completed a basic certificate in heating and air-conditioning repair. But the Department of Labor was late with his paperwork, so he missed the deadline for the advanced air-conditioning class. With only a basic certificate, he’s applied for 100 jobs with no success. Employers say they want experience even for entry-level jobs. He’s starting a welding program next month.
Natalie Dowell, who spent 16 years at RG Steel, most recently as a crane operator, is taking an eight-month program to learn how to disinfect, sterilize, and package surgical instruments. She’s optimistic about her job prospects, but won’t match her old pay of up to $23 an hour.
Bobby Curran hoped to earn an associate degree in chemical-dependency counseling, but he struggled with English and algebra classes. Three weeks into the semester, he gave up. Instead, he plans to train as a building-maintenance technician at North American Trade School, a for-profit that’s recruited 52 ex-steelworkers.
The course sounded reassuringly familiar to Mr. Curran—less intimidating than a community college, with its academic orientation and vast array of certificate, degree, and continuing-education choices. His buddies’ program covers how to fix air-conditioning and heating units, lay bricks, build roofs: “everything from A to Z about working on a house,” he says, encouraged.
The trade school markets its programs as a way to get back to work as quickly as possible, says John Meissner, director of admissions.