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Community colleges offer ways for out-of-work to get back on the job
By Matt Arado | Daily Herald Staff

Mallisa Mariotti of Elgin demonstrates techniques March 17 during the Physical Therapist Assistant 4 class at Elgin Community College in Elgin.

 

Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Instructor Kim Tarver works with her students in the Physical Therapist Assistant 4 class Tuesday, March 17, 2009 at Elgin Community College in Elgin. Area colleges, specifically community colleges, are helping adult learners during this bad economy.

 

Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Students including Jay Peters, 22, from Lake in the Hills, left, Mandy Ragan, 28, of McHenry, and Mallisa Mariotti of Elgin work in the Physical Therapist Assistant 4 class Tuesday, March 17, 2009 at Elgin Community College in Elgin.

 

Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Welding class teachers assistant John Maier of Buffalo Grove demonstrates writing the letter "W" while painting with light with a blow torch as adult student Jeff Kretschmer of Inverness looks on. The class is being offered at Harper College in Palatine.

 

George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

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Published: 5/4/2009 12:07 AM

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Suburban community colleges offer a variety of services for job seekers, from resume preparation to job fairs to support groups for the unemployed.

Harper College: (847) 925-6707, harpercollege.edu

College of Lake County: (847) 543-2000, clcillinois.edu

Elgin Community College: (847) 697-1000, elgin.edu

College of DuPage: (630) 942-2800, cod.edu

McHenry County College: (815) 455-3700, mchenry.edu

Oakton Community College: (847) 635-1600, oakton.edu

Waubonsee Comm. College: (630) 466-7900, waubonsee.edu

For many suburbanites forced out of work by the recession, the road back to financial security runs through the local community college.

Thousands of unemployed and underemployed residents are turning to these schools for all kinds of services, from tips on how to write the best resume to training for a brand-new career.

Community colleges usually see an uptick in interest during tough economic times. This year, though, that interest is off the charts. Consider:

• A job fair hosted by the College of Lake County recently saw roughly 1,500 job seekers attend. Normally, such events attract between 700 and 800 people.

• The number of adult applications for the spring 2009 term at Harper College in Palatine is up by roughly 39 percent over last year at this time. Officials believe the economy is helping drive that increase.

• The admissions office at the College of DuPage reports that double the usual number of people are inquiring about the school's "For Your Information" workshops, which explain what the school offers to adult learners.

"So many people out there need retraining or career help, and they're realizing that community colleges provide a pretty good return on the investment," said Gwendolyn Koehler, executive dean of corporate, continuing and adult education at McHenry County College.

The people turning to community colleges these days come from a variety of backgrounds, officials say. Some are looking for their first college-level coursework. Others have already earned bachelor's degrees but seek additional training after being downsized.

"We're seeing all kinds coming in and asking about our programs," said Angela Nackovic, adult recruitment project manager at College of DuPage. "I know a lot are telling us they've lost a job."

The economy has spurred some schools to launch new programs and incentives in an effort to get people back to work. Oakton Community College, for example, offered free tuition on a number of programs last semester to full-time workers who'd lost their jobs. In February, the College of Lake County started offering a popular, and free, weekly support group for unemployed residents.

"It's easy when you've lost a job to feel helpless and overstressed," said Sylvia M. Johnson, executive director of career and placement services at CLC. "This program gives people a chance to share what they're going through. It helps them stay energized and make contacts." Johnson said 20 to 25 people have attended the sessions each week, adding that the overall demand for the college's career services has doubled.

Harper College has launched a series of new programs for the unemployed under the name "Re/New You." Included are seminars and workshops about finding a job, starting a new career, managing stress and other issues, along with a monthly support group for those who have been laid off or are changing careers.

The first meeting of the support group, known as the Career Stimulus program, drew 250 people.

"The response has been unbelievable," Nancy Wajler, an adult learning special assistant at Harper, said about the Career Stimulus support group. "Our goal is to help people deal with the stress they're feeling by being out of work, and also to provide a new path to employment."

Prospect Heights resident Paulette Wolters is taking advantage of another Harper program - a voucher that covers tuition and fees for laid-off residents of the Harper district, enabling them to take classes that could increase their job prospects.

"I couldn't afford this otherwise," said Wolters, who is using the funds to pursue an associates degree at Harper.

Harper set aside $150,000 for the plan, which was originally designed as a stopgap measure when federal funding for the Workforce Investment Act - normally the source for tuition assistance - ran out earlier this year.

Federal funding for that program has returned, but Harper continues to hold informational sessions about it each week so that residents who've lost their jobs are aware of their options. The final session will be held May 19. After that, the program will be handled by the Illinois workNet office in Arlington Heights.

Wolters turned to the program after being laid off from a project-management job. Getting a degree became a priority when she saw how competitive the job market is.

"I started working right out of high school, and not having a degree held me back," Wolters said. "You need whatever advantage you can get. I've seen lines out the door at the unemployment office. I've gone to local libraries to search for jobs on their computers, and they were all being used. So many people are out there right now."

In addition to new programs, community colleges report increased interest in their existing classes and services among adults.

At McHenry County College, for example, the number of applications from "non-high school" students - a group that includes returning adults - for the Fall 2009 semester is nearly double the number received a year ago. At Elgin Community College, the number of students aged 25 to 39 enrolled for the spring 2009 semester is up by more than 25 percent over last year (from 1,616 students to 2,070). The number of students age 40 to 59 also jumped.

Lake in the Hills resident Rubel Gutierrez, 45, said the economy spurred him to enroll at ECC in an attempt to secure a better life for his family. He's taking classes in heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration in the hopes that he can start a career in that industry.

"In this economy, HVAC looks like a good profession to be in," said Gutierrez, a father of five who now works as a service technician. "No matter what's happening, people will need to refrigerate the food they eat. They'll want to be warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It seems like I'll always be in demand."

Most community colleges also offer basic job-search programs - how to write a good resume and cover letter, interview tips, etc. These programs have also seen a spike in participation, officials say.

"I think some people have been surprised at the breadth of what we offer," said COD's Nackovic. "We can respond to the needs of the population more quickly than anyone. I hope that people remember that even when the economy gets better."