Retraining for the Future

By Beacon Staff

LIBBY – Behind Flathead Valley Community College’s Lincoln County Campus sits a trailer-turned-classroom. Inside are 10 welding stations, tightly lined along one wall and shrouded by red plastic curtains.

For some in Libby this is just a classroom, but for others it’s a future.

On a recent Tuesday morning a group of students sat on a picnic table outside the trailer, escaping the oven-like heat. Most of the enrollees in the community college’s 10-week welding course aren’t traditional students, having returned to school after losing a job or having no luck finding one – all too common in an area where the unemployment rate has hovered around 15 percent.

Terrel Fuller was born in Libby and left when he was a kid, but returned during the summer to spend time with family on their land near Lake Koocanusa. Memories of that place brought him back a few years ago after losing his job in Washington.

“You’re here for the mountains, the beauty of this place,” he said.

But when he returned he found a community reeling from the loss of some of the largest employers and finding a job to provide for his 15-year-old daughter was tough. So when the community college began offering a 10-week course to train welders to work at the newly opened Stinger Welding branch in Libby, he jumped at the opportunity.

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As director of the Lincoln County Campus, Patrick Pezzelle’s job is to respond to the educational needs of the area. In the last few years he has created workforce retraining programs to help fight high unemployment.

Established in 1984, the campus is a satellite branch of Kalispell’s FVCC and offers two-year associate degrees in arts and science, as well as online courses for students outside of the area. A few years ago when the Environmental Protection Agency declared Libby a Superfund site and began cleaning up asbestos in the town, the college began offering a training program so locals could help. When the Stimson Lumber Company closed its doors, a building trades program was formed to retrain those who lost their job. Two years later the program ended when the need was exhausted.

“We also have to have the ability to know when to fold,” Pezzelle said, adding that, “if we’re not paying attention to the community, then we’re not a community college.”

When Stinger Welding decided to open a branch in Libby, Pezzelle knew his staff had to respond. He soon began talking with company officials about their workforce needs.

“I started talking with their trainer from Arizona, saying ‘OK, what type of workforce do you need? What does it need to look like?’” he said.

Working with Stinger, the college created a course aimed at training students for entry-level jobs at the bridge-building company headquartered in Arizona.

Early this year students began filing into the trailer for 10-week courses in hopes of meeting Stinger’s demand for almost 160 welders in two years. Being able to adjust, however, is why the trailer has wheels, Pezzelle said.

“Once the welding interest wanes, we can back a truck up to that trailer and cart it off to Kalispell or wherever that training is needed,” he said.

Training programs, like the welding course, are what Lincoln County needs now more than ever, according to Paul Rumelhart.

“Any workforce training program helps the county,” said Rumelhart, executive director of the Kootenai River Development Council. “There is a need to train unemployed people for jobs here or elsewhere.”

Lincoln County has the second-highest unemployment in the state, which Rumelhart attributes to the loss of high-paying industrial jobs in logging and mining. He welcomed companies like Stinger and the college programs established to create a hiring pool.

Dirk Lathan Bennett, 45, was hired at Stinger before he even finished the class. Originally from Oklahoma, Bennett moved to Libby with his wife but he couldn’t find a job. When he heard about the welding class and the possibility of a work, he signed up immediately. Before finishing, he was interviewed by Stinger and was hired soon after.

“Everything is great; everything is the way it is supposed to be,” he said. “As long as Stinger is here and open, that’s where I’ll be working.”

But not everyone in the welding courses is interested in working for Stinger. And a few weeks ago, when the basic training class for Stinger was supposed to start again, no one signed up. Those who are enrolled in the welding class are now taking an advanced 10-week course in hopes of gaining more training to score a job on the other side of the Continental Divide, where oil companies building pipelines are hiring and offering big paydays in eastern Montana and North Dakota.

Pezzelle said people leaving Libby for better jobs isn’t uncommon.

“The kind of workforce Libby has always prided itself in, the folks that really needed and wanted to go to work in a hurry, they’ve left,” he said, adding that some have said the program is “exporting talent.”

Still, Pezzelle said Libby and Lincoln County have a bright future – new business, good healthcare and schools, and a great quality of life. He also understands people need to do what is best for them. He said it’s his job to meet the educational needs of the community – where people take their education is their choice.

“It’s the students’ job to apply (their education). If that means you go to Wyoming, you go to Wyoming. If that’s what’s best for you and your family, go,” he said.

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Where Fuller will take his education is something that has weighed heavy on his mind, he said as he sat on a bench outside the welding trailer last week. Fuller has considered staying in the area and taking a job at Stinger so he can remain with his young daughter, but the bigger paycheck out east is also enticing.

“She’s got a grandmother in town who could watch her,” he said, talking about what might happen to his family. “But I want to be more involved.”

There’s also the place he loves so much and the family property on Lake Koocanusa, where he spent summers as a kid. He wonders if he really could leave.

“The fishing is awesome (and) the hunting is awesome, even if the water is a little to cold to play in sometimes,” he said, as he walked back toward the trailer, and his future.

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