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Indiana Autoworkers Go Back To School

The roll call in classes at Ivy Tech Community College in Kokomo, Ind., is longer since the latest bout of economic troubles hit the U.S. auto industry.

With one in five people in Kokomo now jobless, the school's ranks are swelling with laid-off factory workers. Many of them are attending college with the help of Trade Adjustment Assistance, a federal program that pays for retraining of workers whose jobs have been hurt by foreign trade or competition.

Kokomo is just south of Elkhart, Ind., where President Obama is expected to visit Aug. 5 to discuss steps his administration is taking to revive the economy.

Time For A Change

Kim Hatfield is a former autoworker now enrolled at Ivy Tech. After working for Chrysler for 10 years, Hatfield was laid off in February 2008. One year to the day after losing her job, she suffered a massive heart attack that her doctors say was caused in part by the stress of unemployment.

With the financial help offered through the TAA program, Hatfield decided it was time for a change.

"My thing was, like, I thought about it previously, and at this point it was like, man, this is a great opportunity because it is paid for. Our books are even paid for. You'd be a fool not to take it," Hatfield says.

Looking for the kind of job security that has become elusive in the auto industry, Hatfield enrolled in a program at Ivy Tech to train her to be a medical assistant. She and many of her peers haven't set foot in a classroom since high school.

For some, like former autoworker Danny Spaulding, that's a 30-year hiatus. Spaulding is heading back to school because he has grown tired of the ups and downs of the auto industry.

"I've known it's been a roller coaster ride in the auto industry for 20-some years," Spaulding says. "It just seemed like right now we're on a straight down path."

Former autoworkers like Hatfield and Spaulding are exactly who Indiana unemployment officials want to see in school.

Marc Lotter, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, says one of the chief challenges is combating the mindset that manufacturing jobs will always exist in places like Kokomo.

Our books are even paid for. You'd be a fool not to take it.

"They believe, 'My job will come back. It has many times before over the past many years.' We need to start people thinking, 'Maybe it's time for me to look for something different,' " he says.

Tuition Help Or Health Insurance?

Lotter says the TAA program is expanding to accommodate an increasing number of workers looking for a new career.

"In fact, the stimulus bill contains another expansion of TAA, which we're still working with the U.S. Department of Labor to get the rules and the guidelines for what all that entails," Lotter says.

Hatfield and Spaulding say they're torn, though, between embracing a new path or going back someday to build Chryslers. Both opted not to take a buyout, which means there's a possibility they could be called back to work if orders pick up.

But there's a catch: If they do go back to work, they'll lose their TAA funding and won't be able to afford tuition. If they leave Chrysler, they give up their medical coverage.

It's a dicey trade-off, and although Hatfield says she, too, wants a change from the roller coaster ride of the auto industry, the lure of Chrysler health benefits remains strong.

"It's just not knowing what's going to happen, and, like, your kids need insurance. I don't know. It's a lot to worry about, so now you figure out you just got to let a lot of that go, because there's nothing you can do," Hatfield says. "But this is a step, you know, in a direction where maybe I can get out of that."

Hatfield still regularly attends her union meetings for news on Chrysler. But until she hears differently, she'll stick to the books.

Copyright 2009 WFIU

Arianna Prothero