Program Helps Laid Off Employees Get Degrees

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA – Employees who lost jobs in 2007 and 2008 when Stimson Lumber Co.’s Bonner mill shut down are now earning degrees at the University of Montana’s College of Technology and elsewhere

When the mill closed for good last year, 100-some employees were forced to find new work. About 70 of them chose to take advantage of the federal retraining program called Trade Adjustment Assistance.

Many of them were among graduates taking part in commencement ceremonies Saturday at the University of Montana.

In total, about 40 former Stimson workers will graduate from trade schools and community colleges around the region this spring.

Graduates who trained in such new fields as medical assisting say they are hopeful they will now be able to get new jobs.

Kim Robbins, 55, said hadn’t set foot in a classroom for decades.

“I wouldn’t exactly call the experience fun,” said Robbins, who will receive an associate of applied sciences in the field of medical assisting. “There were some pretty rough and scary moments at the beginning, but I found I really liked the material I had to learn and that I was pleasantly surprised I’d risen to the challenge.”

Jesse Rhoads, 61, said the transitions was intimidating.

“I really thought it would be tough for me after 40 years of not being in school, and my last formal education was in 1967,” Rhoads said. “But my mind adjusted right back to being a student and I maintained straight A’s.”

Robbins spent 31 years on the putty line, filling defects in finished plywood and will now manage medical files and draw people’s blood.

“This experience is a long ways from wood putty and I wasn’t sure how I would handle my first cadaver class. But once I found myself there, I found it fascinating,” Robbins said. “It’s a pleasant surprise to find out how well you might do at something new, and find out things you never thought to explore but come to find out is incredibly interesting.”

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