Jerry Bowers is starting over.
Nearly four decades of work at Springs Industries came to an end Oct. 6, 2007, when the Kershaw man's job as a supervisor in the dye department was shipped to Brazil.
Robbed of the job security he thought he'd always have, Bowers felt he had one option: Go to school to learn a new trade.
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"I'm going to do something that can't be sent overseas," said Bowers, who enrolled at York Technical College in March to get certified in carpentry and electrical work, hoping to find a new career in construction.
"People's always going to be building. You're always going to have electrical (needs) somewhere."
Bowers' story is familiar. He's among those who have swelled enrollment at York Tech and other technical colleges as layoffs and furloughs brought on by a wretched economy have people reconsidering career choices and heading back to school to learn new skills to help them become more marketable.
"Traditionally at technical schools, when the economy is poor, enrollment increases," said Mark Ulseth, associate vice president for academic and student affairs at York Tech.
Indeed, 3,300 more working-age people in York County are out of work today compared to a year ago. That has jolted the county's unemployment rate from a stable 5.2 percent to an uncomfortable 8.2 percent over the same time period.
York Tech has seen a roughly 25 percent enrollment increase over the past three years, including traditional students -- those attending classes to earn a certificate or a degree -- and those going back to school to learn skills needed in a specific job, such as electrical lineman or heavy equipment operator.
"Regardless of a good or bad economy, the college is going to grow," Ulseth said, citing ongoing population growth in the York County area. "The bad economy accelerates that growth."
Last semester, as the pace of layoffs and business closings picked up, the Rock Hill college passed the 5,000 enrollment mark for the first time.
Bridging a gap
The enrollment growth at York Tech mirrors similar growth at technical colleges around the state.
Statewide, enrollment at technical colleges was up 6 percent last semester and is up 23 percent since 2001, according to the S.C. Technical College System.
The growth since 2001 translates into more than 15,000 new technical college students, said Kelly Steinhilper, spokeswoman for the system.
"We are anticipating an even larger increase in the months to come as ... people are laid off and are looking for ways to retool or retrain," Steinhilper said.
There are around 800,000 people in South Carolina who lack the skills to work in what Steinhilper called the "new knowledge economy" -- one in which employers want workers with higher-level skills, such as the ability to work with high-tech machinery in fields like alternative energy.
"We see that as a gap that the technical colleges can serve very well," she said. "That's exactly what the technical colleges can and do provide."
At York Tech, the more popular programs for new students are those related to health care and automotive technology.
"Those are jobs that are going to be here no matter what," Ulseth said. "Those are popular choices for students when they look at the job market."
In Bowers' case, he's already earned certification in carpentry and is working toward a certificate in electrical work. Bowers said he isn't worried about the slowdown in housing construction. He feels it will pick up soon. But even if it doesn't, he said, "there's always going to be repairs, add-ons."
Jason Ghent, Bowers' electrical instructor, said the people he's teaching this year seem to come from all ages, all backgrounds.
"I've seen guys from early 20s all the way up to 60s," Ghent said, noting that many are people laid off from textile jobs. "It's across the board. ... We're probably going to start seeing some others. There's a lot of businesses that are closing down."
Annie Reid, director of the Rock Hill Workforce Center, said many of the unemployed people her agency deals with are realizing they lack the skills necessary to land a job in today's market.
"We have quite a few that are going back to school, especially the displaced workers, those who were laid off. Some of our occupations are obsolete," she said. "There are a lot of occupations that require computer skills.
"Things are more technical now. People have to get acclimated to using a computer."
Though former textile workers make up a large portion of the people Reid helps in her office, people from other industries are joining the unemployment line.
"We're getting other people, as companies close, that are rethinking their occupation," she said.
The Workforce Center lets people know that going back to school is an option to become more marketable, Reid said, but officials don't try to sway people one way or another.
"Some people are not suited to school. We let them know it's available in case they want to do it," she said. "We never know people's personal situation."
'Always able to get a job'
Rock Hill's Nishima Jones, 32, is an expert on layoffs, though he doesn't want to be.
Three layoffs in two years will do that.
After holding -- and losing -- multiple blue-collar jobs, learning a skill has become a priority.
Because there are no guarantees anymore.
"I was always able to get a job," Jones said. "Now, it's not like that."
A self-described handyman, Jones hopes he can find a career in air conditioning and refrigeration, so he's attending York Tech to earn a degree.
"I'm having fun learning something new. I'm hoping to get a rewarding career out of it," he said. "You have to find a market now that's stable."
In this economy, that's the hard part.
York Tech tries to follow up with former students to see if they've had success landing jobs. But it takes a year to get that information -- and the latest information officials have is from fall 2006.
So, it's hard to gauge the success of graduates from the past couple years, Ulseth said, when times have been extra tough.
But clearly, there aren't as many jobs available as there used to be, he said.
"They're not guaranteed anything."
Thinking of learning new job skills after a layoff? Visit yorktech.com/admissions or call 803-327-8008 for information on how to enroll.
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