Posted Online: Sept. 08, 2012, 8:44 pm

Trading boots for books

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By Anthony Watt, awatt@qconline.com

More photos from this shoot
Photo: Todd Welvaert
Joanne Sandy sits in a conference room at Black Hawk College in Moline on Tuesday, August 28, 2012, waiting for class. She is another Honeywell employee getting a new start after losing her job.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Mike Bradley
Tammie Trout poses for a photo at Black Hawk College on Tuesday, August 21, 2012. Ms. Trout is one of about 60 former Honeywell employees to attend Black Hawk after losing her job last fall.
Boots have given way to books for several dozen former Honeywell employees who are working toward degrees at Black Hawk College.

Last year, the company closed the doors of the subsidiary Norcross Safety Products plant on Rock Island's west edge, ending employment for about 300 people. The plant produced boots. Honeywell notified employees of the pending closure in January 2010 and offered federally-funded education and retraining benefits.

Some 50 former employees are using those benefits to work toward new careers through BHC, according to the college.

"I don't know why none of them are ever light," Tammie Trout, 52, of Aledo, said of her textbooks one day on a break from classes.

Ms. Trout is studying business management and marketing in the hopes of going into business for herself.

The weight of textbooks aside, Ms. Trout said she is adjusting well to life as a student -- there are fewer rules than there were at the plant.

"I don't have to wear steel-toed shoes or safety glasses," she said.

At Honeywell, Ms. Trout was helping manufacture waterproof boots when the announcement of closure came. By that point, she had been there 26 years. Now, she is hoping to combine her growing knowledge of business with her crafting skill to start selling her homemade blankets.

Going a new direction is a bit scary, she said. The options were: get another factory job or take a chance on something she wants to do.

Even if her craft business does not work out, her new skills will be a boon in the job market, Ms. Trout said. "It really doesn't look bad on a resume that we're willing to take a chance to learn something new," she said.

The other people from the plant are pursuing a variety of different fields, said Cathryn Lass, a BHC educational advisor. Those fields range from engineering technology to welding. She said about 90 percent of the former employees still are enrolled, a few already have graduated, and another couple left school.

"Several students are pursuing their dream jobs now, such as nursing or advancing their computer skills," Ms. Lass said. "They have completely embraced the opportunity to re-train and prepare for a new career."

Some of the others are also planning their own businesses, including home-based child care and independent computer services, she said. Others are planning to use BHC to help them get bachelor's degrees. Those students are looking at areas like social services, health/physical education/recreation or biology.

Joanne Sandy is focusing on computers and web design.

Ms. Sandy, 51, of Rock Island, had just started at Norcross when the employees were told the plant would close.

"That was my first day," she said. "I was sitting there with people I didn't know."

It was a familiar scenario for her -- she said she was working at the Maytag plant in Galesburg when it was shut down in 2004. At that point, Maytag had been her employer since 1989.

From there, Ms. Sandy found her way to Carl Sandburg College, Galesburg, where she earned an associate's degree in middle management and marketing.

After that, there were several jobs, none of which stuck for a number of reasons: she left the weekly publication she worked for in the Galesburg area when the ownership changed; her receptionist job at Bethany for Children and Families in Moline was the victim of state funding cuts. Other jobs were temporary.

She said a steady career in marketing really requires a bachelor's degree and a strong knowledge of the area where you work. Since her job hunt had taken her to the Quad-Cities, that knowledge was not there.

Then came Honeywell. She worked during the two-year shut-down, and, when the end arrived, enrolled at BHC.

Ms. Sandy is hoping to build on the experience and knowledge she already has as she pushes for her new career and wants to educate herself in a field that could lead to employment.

"What's the point in going to school if you're not going to get a job?" she said.