At a time when many South Sound residents are laid off and need training for new careers, local community colleges are facing the stiffest cuts in years.
That’s why several hundreds of thousands of federal stimulus dollars are being spent to fund college classes for the unemployed – from truck driving courses to training to become a health care worker or a pastry artist.
The Tacoma-Pierce County Workforce Development Council has spent $1.4 million so far in stimulus money to pay for extra sections of in-demand classes at local community and technical colleges.
One student taking advantage of the help is Lokeni Lokeni, who was laid off from his offshore oil drilling job in October.
Lokeni, 27, is now in his fourth week of a six-month commercial truck driving program at Bates Technical College.
He said he tried to find work in the oil industry, but no one was hiring. When he researched training programs for truck driving, he thought he couldn’t afford them, he said.
“When I first found out I got into this program, I was on my knees thanking God,” said Lokeni, who lives in Parkland with his wife and 5-year-old daughter. “Job security to take care of my family – that’s what it’s all about.”
Since April 2009, stimulus money has paid for 342 classroom seats for dislocated workers in Pierce County, said Jesse Guite, spokeswoman for WorkForce Central.
Stimulus dollars routed through the workforce development councils completely covers the workers’ tuition, as well as the colleges’ costs to provide the classes.
“We know in this time there are a lot of people who need retraining, but they can’t afford to get it out of their own pocket or wait to get federal financial aid,” said Linda Nguyen, executive director of the Tacoma-Pierce County Workforce Development Council. “This allows people to go to school and not really worry about the funding.”
Typically, workforce councils distribute training assistance to dislocated workers on an individual basis, Nguyen said. But stimulus funding has looser requirements, allowing the councils to sponsor entire classes with it.
The strategy has been useful given the reduced course offerings at community colleges during the recession, she said. Bates has had to trim its budget by a total of $2 million since 2008, said school spokeswoman Edie Jeffers.
The local workforce council has given Bates a total of about $333,000 in stimulus money to pay for trucking classes and a pre-nursing class, Jeffers said.
Other Pierce County colleges receiving stimulus money for classes include Tacoma Community College, Clover Park Technical College and Pierce College.
Meanwhile, the Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council is distributing $600,000 in stimulus money to community and technical colleges in Thurston, Lewis, Mason, Pacific and Grays Harbor counties.
The money has helped officials at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia offer extra sections of classes that they otherwise couldn’t afford, said college spokeswoman Kellie Braseth.
State budget cuts reduced the college’s budget by $2 million in 2009-2010, an 11 percent cut from the previous academic year. “Our course offering is smaller, our staff is smaller,” Braseth said. “This has helped us a lot with providing some capacity which we otherwise wouldn’t have had.”
South Puget Sound Community College is receiving a total of $170,000 to offer classes for dislocated workers. Its offerings include Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) courses and a new training program called Building Information Modeling, which prepares students for specialized work with architectural firms.
The stimulus money also helped the school launch a new training initiative in hybrid vehicle repair.
SPSCC received $111,000 to integrate hybrid vehicle training into its existing automotive program.
Without the money, it would have taken the school four to five years to start a hybrid program, said Brent Chapman, the college’s dean of applied technology.
“This is stimulus money that was well worth it,” said automotive professor Norm Chapman, who is teaching a class of 19 students. “They’re basically learning a new occupation, and they’re going to walk out of here with some 21st century skills.”
With the stimulus money, the college bought wrecked hybrid vehicles and tools for the students to use. The money also paid for faculty training and curriculum development.
Rocky Atwood, 34, of Olympia, said he’s grateful for the specialized training as he prepares for a new career working on cars. He spent 15 years working in government contracting before being laid off in November, he said.
He said having financial help to retrain is making his transition much easier.
“I would have had to go into debt or get student loans or find a crappy night job to support myself,” Atwood said. “This is a new start.”
Melissa Santos: 253-552-7058