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Former Bemidji area strand board plant workers seek new career paths

BEMIDJI Todd Andre, Eric Johnson and Curt Peterson aren't your typical college students. They have three times the work experience than the average freshman. Working in groups is second nature, and they've learned to use critical-thinking skills ...

Todd Andre, left, walks to class at Northwest Technical College with Eric Johnson. The former Ainsworth Lumber strand board workers are among 80 other dislocated workers from the region who chose to go back to school to find new careers. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper


Todd Andre, Eric Johnson and Curt Peterson aren't your typical college students.

They have three times the work experience than the average freshman. Working in groups is second nature, and they've learned to use critical-thinking skills to solve problems, despite having not sat in a classroom in years.

The former Ainsworth workers started classes last spring at Northwest Technical College.

Vancouver-based Ainsworth Lumber Co. announced in January 2009 that it would permanently close its oriented strand board mills in Bemidji and Cook, Minn. After a second wave of layoffs, the Bemidji mill ceased operations in December 2008, putting about 140 area employees out of work.


"You can't walk through the halls here without running into someone you used to work with," said Peterson, a former utility worker at the mill.

Peterson is currently enrolled in the practical nursing program at NTC. He said his decision to pursue nursing stemmed from training he received as an Emergency Medical Technician at Ainsworth.

"I really enjoyed it," Peterson said. "At first I didn't think I was qualified for the nursing program at NTC, but was relieved when an instructor told me, 'You're not too old.'"

Andre worked as a production manager for 12 years at the mill and now is enrolled in the construction and electrician program at NTC.

"After being in wood products for as long as I was, I was ready for a change," Andre said. "The layoff prompted me to do it a little faster."

Andre said many workers were faced with three options: find a new job somewhere else, receive unemployment or go back to school.

"Moving wasn't something I wanted to do," he said. "I decided I was not going to chase wood products anymore and I wanted to go back to school."

Johnson, who worked as a maintenance supervisor for six years at Ainsworth, plans to graduate in spring 2010 from NTC with a degree in manufacturing engineering technology.


"The wood products industry is still hurting," he said. "To make a big move was risky. I had opportunities, but my wife had a good job. School was a good option."

Former Ainsworth employees who are enrolled in Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program's dislocated worker program are eligible through the federal Trade Adjustment Act to receive up to two years of training, including tuition and books, and two years of unemployment. Rural MN CEP also helps pay for gas for school and car insurance.

Al Pederson, job counselor with Rural MN CEP, has worked with many of the workers.

He also knows what it is like to be a mid-career student.

Pederson was laid off at Ainsworth in 2006 and went through the dislocated program through Rural MN CEP. After graduating from Bemidji State University with a degree in business administration, he was hired by the Rural MN CEP to be a representative for dislocated workers.

"I knew most of those guys from Ainsworth before I started working with them through MN CEP," Pederson said. "I can relate to them. We can talk about the plant, and I know about all the dirt and hard labor."

It was a difficult transition for many of the dislocated workers who chose to go to school.

"The stressful part wasn't the thought of going back to school, it was taking a test again," Andre said. "I'm stressed out until I see results."


When Johnson started the engineering program last fall, most of the students in the program were former Ainsworth workers.

"It helped a lot to have others you used to work with in class," Johnson said. "It's like you have your own family here."

NTC's transition institute provides resources and services for mid-career adults. The institute helps adults begin their education with assistance during each stage of the process.

"Once they get back into the swing of things, they are some of our best students," said Debbie Drinkard Grovum, counselor at NTC. "Faculty love mid-career adults because they bring so much knowledge with them into their classes."

In working with dislocated workers through the transition institute, Drinkard Grovum said she has been most impressed with their positive attitudes.

"I've seen this huge group of mid-career adults asking how they can benefit from this experience," she said. "They have chosen to focus on the positive instead of the negatives."

Mary Eaton and Robin Larson of The Idea Circle Inc. purchased the former Ainsworth site east of Bemidji to develop a Bioenergy Park.

There could be potential for former Ainsworth employees to be hired at the Bioenergy Park, they said, but since the focus will be on enviro-energy, it will be a question of skill fit.

"I would say that all of us are looking for jobs all the time," Johnson said. "We are mid-career adults. If something comes up, it would have to be really good to leave the opportunity that we have."

Pederson, with Rural MN CEP, has high hopes for his past fellow Ainsworth workers.

"These guys were very successful at the plant," Pederson said. "I expect when they graduate, they will lead the group again and get the best jobs out there."

The Bemidji Pioneer and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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