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Former welder Chris Kelsaw and security supervisor Maggie Botteron are studying at Ivy Tech after losing jobs.

Starting over, with help

Federal aid getting local jobless workers trained for new endeavors

Laid off by Navistar, Dan Riemen will re-enter the job market with additional engineering training from IPFW.

Lost work. Lost income. Lost hope.

Just plain lost.

Thousands of northeast Indiana workers lost their jobs when their employers downsized or closed operations during the recent recession and the slow recovery that followed.

In many cases, those companies lost market share to cheaper imports or moved work out of the country to reduce production costs. The federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program was created to help such workers – the ones who found themselves on the losing end of free-trade policies.

But with federal funding set to expire Dec. 31, the program is at a critical stage.

Although other government assistance options exist, including unemployment benefits, TAA’s benefits are more varied, local beneficiaries have found. Here are some of their stories:

A second shot

Dan Riemen had it made … until he didn’t.

The Allen County man spent 19 years working for Navistar International Corp. in the electrical department. He designed wire harnesses for vehicles, a position that paid $63,000 a year.

But then the manufacturer decided to move most of its local operations to the Chicago area.

Lisle, Illinois-based Navistar employed 1,400 here before the drawdown and about 20 after – flooding the local job market with engineers and others with technical experience at a time when the economy was seriously struggling.

Local displaced workers argued that they qualified for TAA benefits because Navistar also moved some of the work to India and Mexico. Federal officials agreed, opening access to the program’s benefits to anyone who’d worked on the site, even those who were assigned to Navistar but received their paychecks from contractors.

Riemen, who has a bachelor’s degree, received two years of engineering training at ITT Educational Services Inc. He planned to use his education and experience to launch the next phase of his life after his last day at Navistar in December 2011.

“I guess the plan was just to try to find a new job right away,” he said. “But the job market was just really bad.”

How bad was it? Riemen sent out about 150 résumés and received only seven replies. He was invited in for a couple of interviews, but he didn’t receive any job offers.

Riemen, now 49, also received calls from headhunters who’d seen his résumé online. But the out-of-state jobs they offered weren’t tempting.

Riemen’s wife has a good job in finance at Lincoln National Corp. If they moved, she’d have to restart her career, too. The couple figured that didn’t make sense. Also, they look in on her mother, who is in her 70s and lives alone. Moving out of state just wouldn’t work.

So Riemen decided to enroll at IPFW to study mechanical engineering technology, a two-year program. TAA covers only those education plans that lead to a degree within two years. Riemen’s hope was that the degree “would make me a double threat” with both electrical and mechanical engineering training.

Potential jobs could include quality control inspector for an advanced manufacturer, such as Fort Wayne Metals Research Products Corp., which makes precision wire for the medical industry. Workers in similar positions earn $45,000 to $55,000 a year.

Riemen said he doesn’t even know which companies have openings these days because he hasn’t read job listings in months.

“I spend most of my time doing homework and studying,” he said.

The work has paid off with a grade-point average close to a perfect 4.0, an asset that Riemen will try to use to his advantage when he relaunches his job search after graduating this December.

Upward mobility

Chris Kelsaw was a welder at Manitowoc Foodservice, which made conveyor-style restaurant ovens in Fort Wayne until last year, when most of the operation was moved to Cleveland. Workers in the local operation made $18 an hour, on average.

The Wisconsin company consolidated operations to reduce costs and become more competitive with foreign companies.

Officials with WorkOne Northeast visited the plant to talk to workers about various programs, including TAA. Kelsaw was already familiar with the benefits, because it wasn’t the first time his employer had mass job cuts. Previous co-workers had turned to TAA for help.

Kelsaw, now 53, decided he needed to go back to school. He promised himself that when the youngest of his seven children graduated from high school, he’d resume his own education.

With a two-year degree in automotive technology, Kelsaw will qualify to work in a local car dealership’s service department or a similar position, which would return him to his former income level.

TAA provided critical tuition assistance.

“I decided it was my lifeline to pay for my education,” he said.

Even so, Kelsaw can’t afford not to work. So he attends Ivy Tech Community College-Northeast full time and works full time doing machine setup in a factory.

He’s not sure how much he can earn doing auto repair – although he’s heard rumors that some local auto repair jobs pay $15 to $30 an hour. If it’s true, even the low end of that range is more than he’s making now.

Kelsaw has three more semesters of that brutal schedule – if TAA continues to pay for his schooling. If the benefits aren’t extended beyond Dec. 31, he’s not sure what he’ll do.

“I’m halfway through the program, and if I get cut off, financial aid alone won’t help me,” he said, adding that he couldn’t afford to stay in school under those conditions.

Kelsaw, who has built a reputation as a hard worker, wonders whether elected officials are committed to taking care of people hurt by federal trade policies. He wonders whether American society is turning into a place where people can’t improve their lives anymore through working hard.

But he hasn’t given up.

“There’s plenty of opportunities out there to better yourself,” he said.

As long as that’s the case, Kelsaw intends to take advantage of them.

Open to ideas

Maggie Botteron was a security supervisor on Navistar’s local campus, working for contractor Securitas Security Services.

But the Fort Wayne woman, now 55, lost that job and its $37,000-a-year paycheck in August 2012 after Navistar decided to slash its local workforce.

Botteron filed a training plan and was approved for TAA benefits. She is now taking the last class – physics – required for her two-year degree in human services. But her career course isn’t set in concrete.

Botteron wants to be open to where God leads her next.

“Isn’t success (created from) opportunity and preparation, when it comes together?” she asked. “I’ve done everything I can. It’s been one of the highlights of my life, coming back to school.”

The former security supervisor said Ivy Tech’s teaching staff helped her smooth out some rough edges in the way she interacts with others. Botteron said she’s a better listener and communicator after taking their advice.

Her associate degree is preparing her for possible administrative work at a nonprofit – or a similar position. Those types of jobs pay in the $30,000 to $40,000 range. Her husband is retired, so Botteron feels pressure to contribute to her household’s income.

“I just want that job that you don’t dread getting up in the morning” to go to work, she said.

What does Botteron think of TAA?

“It changes lives.”

sslater@jg.net

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