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As last of the Ainsworth workers graduate from college Friday, some fearful of what is to come

From left, Christan Molitor and Diane Staff, former Ainsworth Lumber Co. Ltd. employees, sit in the cafeteria of Northwest Technical College. Molitor and Staff went back to school after the oriented strand board plant closed in 2009. Both graduate from NTC this Friday. Pioneer Photo/Anne Williams

Diane Staff, 53, of Bemidji, has not yet graduated from college, but the job offers she has received so far pay less than what she earned 20 years ago.

Staff will graduate Friday from Northwest Technical College. She will walk with the last of the former Ainsworth Lumber Co. employees who went back to school to find a new line of work after the oriented strand board plant closed its Bemidji plant in 2009.

The Vancouver, British Columbia-based company, which acquired the Bemidji plant from Potlatch Corp. in 2004, was, closed its plants in Bemidji, Grand Rapids, and Cook, Minn.

Back to school

Staff started working at the plant in 1990 as a fork lift operator and saw line worker. Her last day at the plant was in 2008 just before the plant closed.

"My first thought was I was not going to go back to school at my age," she said. "But then the economy tanked and there were no jobs."

Like many of the former Ainsworth employees, Staff sought support from the Minnesota Workforce Center located in downtown Bemidji. Because the Ainsworth plant was certified under the Trade Adjustment Act, all of the workers who qualified could receive tuition reimbursement as long as they finished their education by May 2011.

In order to receive the tuition dollars, however, workers had to be enrolled as fulltime students until they completed their program.

"There were no jobs out there so I figured if someone was willing to pay for my education, you can't get too smart," Staff said.

Staff will graduate with an associate degree in marketing and management and a diploma in supervisory leadership. She hopes to find work that pays enough to support her family. She is currently deciding whether to accept a job offer that pays $11 an hour.

Christan Molitor, 36, of Shevlin, will also graduate Friday from NTC. He too is a former Ainsworth employee.

Molitor will graduate Friday with a degree in construction electricity. He also has a certificate in wind energy and a boiler operating license. Earlier this year Molitor attended the Bemidji Jaycees' Home, Sport & Travel Show just so he could hand out his resume to perspective employers.

"Most of the Ainsworth workers are not as optimistic about getting a job as we were in 2009 when we started," Staff said. "We truly thought by the time the two years were up things would turn around. We should be so excited we are graduating, but instead we are scared to death."

Pinching pennies

"Ainsworth was a great place to work," said Al Pederson, job counselor at the Workforce Center. Pederson was also a former Ainsworth employee who was laid off from the plant two years before it closed. After finishing his degree at BSU, he was hired on at the center to help the former Ainsworth workers.

"It was really hard to get hired on with Ainsworth," Pederson said. "You didn't have to be necessarily well-educated, but you had to be intelligent and dedicated and hard working to stay out there."

Pederson added the Ainsworth workers who went back to college were motivated to do well and "raised the bar for all the other students."

Many of the former plant workers would study, gather for lunch and attend classes together in college. There is even an Ainsworth graduation party planned after commencement Friday.

But while many of the former plant workers exceeded academically in school, some are having difficulty finding jobs that pay above minimum wage.

"Most of the people who come through the dislocated worker program have left well-paying jobs," said Virginia Deeds, a team leader at the Bemidji Workforce Center. "To find a job like that you often have to relocate."

Staff and Molitor both agreed they could find a job if they relocated, but they do not want to move.

"This is where my kids and their kids are," Staff said. "Does grandma move away? That's the hard part."

Molitor said he thinks he could make $100,000 if he left home but said he said he does not want to leave his family.

Staff said she has applied for 30 jobs so far this spring and has received only two job offers, both of which she considers are low paying.

"It's frustrating because I don't want to, after two years of school, rely on food stamps," Staff said. "But I would qualify for them. It's kind of embarrassing. It's kind of humiliating."

Some of the Ainsworth workers worry where their source of income will come from if they do not find a job soon.

When the plant closed many of the workers received a group pension plan. This was a large severance package that many workers lived on for a year before they could receive unemployment dollars.

"Many of these guys have had that severance, plus unemployment, but now it's running out," Pederson said.

Some workers are also worried they may not receive unemployment if they cannot find a job because they did not work fulltime while attending school.

"In order to collect unemployment in the future, you have to have a work history," Deeds said. "Financially they are probably going to be in a bind for a while."

For Molitor, going back to school was the hardest thing he has ever done, but not because of the schoolwork.

"It hurts the pride," Molitor said. "I've worked since I was 12 years old. The first time I received my first gas voucher, I cried and it still bothers me. This is not where I'm supposed to be. I'm not a person that lives on the system. I don't like it."

While their self-esteems may have been negatively affected, the various dislocated worker programs have given many of the former Ainsworth workers a free college education and a chance at finding a new job.

"We could not have done it without that assistance," Staff added. "But I've been pinching every penny to try and make my financial aid last. You still have to pay your bills."

Finding a trade

Of the 112 former Ainsworth employees who sought assistance from the Bemidji Workforce Center, five attended Bemidji State University. These workers chose degrees in accounting, criminal justice, construction site management, engineering and economics.

Of those who attended NTC, 14 entered into the field of nursing; 15 went towards a degree in plumbing; seven studied construction electrician and nine chose manufacturing engineering.

Some attended other schools, such as the Le Cordon Bleu culinary institute. One person enrolled in cosmetology school. Eleven of the workers received their commercial driver's licenses.

Thirty-six former Ainsworth employees chose to receive no education or extra training, but took advantage of other services from the Workforce Center. Others who did not seek assistance from the center moved to where they found jobs right away.

Roughly 50 percent of the former plant workers who received assistance from the center are now working fulltime, although about half of these jobs are not in the Bemidji area.

Those who are now working fulltime are making an average of $17.51 an hour, Deeds said.

According to Deeds, the center's original goal was to have more than 80 percent of the dislocated workers employed fulltime by the summer of 2011. The goal was also to have workers make an average of about $14 an hour.

Molitor said he will walk at NTC's commencement ceremony as a role model for his 13-year-old daughter.

"My mistake was I didn't take school seriously when I was 18," he said. "In a lot of ways my priorities are straight now. The reason it's harder is because this is not where we are supposed to be. Mentally I'm supposed to be working."