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Opening New Gates: After Being Laid Off, Federal Programs Help Former Factory Workers Find New Caree

Janet Pratt thought she would retire from her job at the Gates Corporation in Galesburg as a finishing operator. James Cunningham had worked factory jobs for most of his adult life, including more than six years at Gates as a vulcanizer operator.

But when Gates laid off them and about 175 other workers in 2020 to transition its production to Mexico, Pratt and Cunningham knew it was time to begin anew. They’ve each found a fresh start in Carl Sandburg College’s information technology and cyber security program, with an assist from the Western Illinois Works office in Galesburg.

“I'm getting up and I'm not knowing what I'm doing every day. I'm still learning things,” said Pratt, 50, of Monmouth. “Every single day is a learning process and a new adventure for me. It feels like a brand-new life. The day I walked out of Gates, that changed things for me.”

WINNING THE EDUCATION LOTTERY

Cunningham, 45, had been through this process before, having been laid off when the Maytag plant in his hometown of Galesburg had shut down. So when he started to hear whispers in 2019 that Gates was planning to ramp down operations, he sprang into action right away. Another job on a line or in a plant wasn’t the direction he wanted to go again. School was his first option.

“It was either that or go back to a factory job,” Cunningham said. “I have a lot of friends and family that have done factory jobs. I've done factory jobs for most of my life. And it's not that I looked down on them. It's that I want more than that.”

Cunningham spent the next year getting his finances in order and started looking into his options through Western Illinois Works, which assists eligible participants who want to go back to school to train for a new career through federal programs like the Trade Act and Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Cunningham left Gates in September of 2020, began his petition for financial assistance less than a month later, qualified for aid and started taking classes at Sandburg for the 2021 spring semester.

The IT and cyber security program that Cunningham enrolled in is one of several WIOA-approved programs at Sandburg. All are designed to get students back into self-sustaining careers through programs that have high employment growth in the area.

“Sandburg’s (associate in applied science) degrees and certificates fit that perfectly because they’re geared to being able to get that one-year certificate or two-year degree and have the credentials necessary to immediately enter the workforce,” said Cathy Wollum, a career specialist with Western Illinois Works’ Knox County office who helped Cunningham and Pratt through their inquiries before she retired this fall.

WIOA and the Trade Act assist students with more than just tuition and fees. They also cover the cost of books, supplies, tools for trade programs and even mileage and child care. And students get guidance throughout their journey from Western Illinois Works.

“The whole program is set up to help people succeed,” Wollum said. “I've had people actually sit at my desk and start crying when I described everything we offer because they had no idea how they were going to do this. It's almost like you've won the education lottery.”

Cunningham is on pace to graduate this spring with his AAS in IT and cyber security, and he’s already earned multiple certificates through his work in the program. A future working with computers interested him because it brought about the possibility of working remotely and presented a new, exciting challenge for the next chapter in his life.

“I'd never been a super computer-literate person. I knew a little bit, but once you start getting into it, a lot of the stuff is — I hate to say it this way — but common-sense stuff,” Cunningham said. “It's easy. It really is. I want to at least do a job that I'm going to somewhat enjoy. And I knew with computers, it would be along that path.”

Cunningham’s experience since leaving Gates has been liberating. Nearly all his work at Sandburg has been done online, and through his unemployment benefits, Pell grants and other financial support for his education, his lifestyle hasn’t had to change much at all. He even had two job offers in the industry last summer but turned them down so he could complete his degree.

“I'm living the same way I did, but with 99 percent more free time to do stuff for me,” Cunningham said. “The only thing I have to focus on is passing my classes.”

‘I WOULD BE FOOLISH NOT TO DO IT’

Like Cunningham, Pratt had known almost nothing but factory work in her adult life. When she took a severance package from Gates in December 2020, it was the third time she’d been let go from a factory job.

But unlike Cunningham, it took several months for Pratt to learn about the resources at her disposal. It wasn’t until the following summer when she attended a Zoom meeting with representatives from the Western Illinois Works Office that she realized Sandburg could be part of her future — and it would be all but free.

“That’s when I got the ball rolling. Now it was my time to figure something out,” Pratt said. “When they said to me, ‘All of this is paid for,’ well, I would be foolish to not do it.”

With financial assistance from the Trade Act, she started Sandburg’s IT and cyber security program in the spring of 2022. She admitted it was a little strange to attend the same orientation session as her friend’s 19-year-old daughter but couldn’t wait to venture into a new profession.

“Computers were always something that I wanted to be a part of,” Pratt said. “So when I discussed my options with Cathy and heard about the program they have here at Sandburg, I said, ‘Let's do this.’ Now the time is here.”

Pratt had gone to college on a couple of other occasions but didn’t complete her degree. This time, she said, will be a different story so she can have more power over her career.

“I don't want to be in another situation such as Gates,” Pratt said. “I don't want that to ever happen again in my life. Going to Sandburg, I know what I want to do. I know with the program that I'm in, I can take this anywhere with me and the future is just growing. I don't feel like I'm ever going to have to worry about not having a good job again.”

‘IT’S NEVER TOO LATE’

Cunningham and Pratt are both on track to graduate with their AAS (Cunningham this spring and Pratt in 2024), and they’ve both been strong students in their time at Sandburg. Cunningham has been on the honors list (3.0-3.49 grade point average) twice, and Pratt made the dean’s list (3.5-4.0 GPA) in her first semester.

They each credited information and communication technology instructor Dr. Suvineetha Herath for going above and beyond in helping them, especially when they first started taking classes. Cunningham recalled Herath asking what he wanted to accomplish and where he envisioned himself being after he graduated.

“She was asking me questions a lot of people haven't really asked me before,” Cunningham said. “She cares, and that's huge. That was the thing I noticed from day one. She cared about my personal well-being more than any other teacher I've had.”

Their only regret is that they hadn’t convinced more of their former Gates co-workers to join them at Sandburg and explore their options through Western Illinois Works. But the message they had for them — and other post-traditional students — is simple.

“Don't be afraid, even at the ages that we're at,” Pratt said. “It's never too late. There are resources. You just have to know where to look and who to call.”

It wasn’t long ago that Pratt and Cunningham walked away from Gates wondering what their futures might bring next. When they walk across the stage, diploma in hand, as Sandburg graduates, they’ll ponder that same question in an entirely different light.

“It’s going to be a great feeling to know that you're closing one door and opening another,” Cunningham said. “Getting that piece of paper, for some people, it's not that much. But to me, it's going to be huge.”

To learn more about WIOA-approved programs at Sandburg, contact the Carl Sandburg College Welcome Center at 309.345.3500 or welcomecenter@sandburg.edu.

WIOA-APPROVED PROGRAMS AT SANDBURG

Certificates

  • Automotive technology

  • Computer numerical control (CNC) operator

  • Computer numerical control (CNC) programmer

  • Medical assistant

  • Nurse assistant

  • Pharmacy technician

  • Practical nursing (LPN)

  • Welding

Associate in Applied Science degrees

  • Accounting

  • Administrative office professional (includes stackable certificate)

  • Business administration

  • Criminal justice (includes stackable certificate)

  • Dental hygiene

  • Industrial maintenance (includes stackable certificates)

  • Information technology & cyber security (includes stackable certificates)

  • Medical office professional (includes stackable certificate)

  • Nursing

  • Radiologic technology

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