– At 59, Wallace Lewis assumed he was finished with school.
After 32 years operating a computerized band saw at International Paper Co.'s lumber mill, the Suffolk man figured he would retire in a few years. Then reality hit.
International Paper threw a kink into Lewis's plans by shuttering its lumber mill in May 2009, forcing him into an early retirement and idling 1,100 workers. He was too young to tap his Social Security benefits, was struggling to pay his family's mortgage and bills, and had too much empty time on his hands.
"I did odd jobs for while: cut grass, farmed, cleaned people's yards," said Lewis. "At first, I didn't have a plan. I would get up every morning and ask myself what I was going to do today."
That lack of direction has changed for Lewis and other workers who lost their jobs in the first six months of 2010 after International Paper's shutdown its adjacent paper mill.
Thanks to the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, a federal program available only to workers whose jobs were lost because of increased imports, Lewis is taking HVAC classes three days a week at Paul D. Camp Community College in Franklin. He plans to open his own heating-and-cooling business when he graduates next May.
"It's hard. I hadn't been in school in a long time," he said, reviewing computer diagrams during a recent class.
Randy Betz, vice president for work force development at Paul D. Camp, estimates that more than 100 displaced mill employees have taken advantage of educational opportunities through the TAA funds. The program covers tuition, books and in some cases, travel reimbursement, for eligible participants.
At the request of the mill's union officials, Paul D. Camp brought in training programs geared toward helping displaced workers, Betz said. More than 35 former mill employees recently took a class to prepare them for their master electrician's exam.
Also at the union's request, the college is teaming with Southside Community College in Emporia to offer a two-year multi-craft curriculum, a course that certifies students in the electrical, welding, plumbing and HVAC trades. Eleven displaced mill workers are enrolled in the program, which teaches the skills needed to open their own business or work in maintenance for an industrial facility, Betz said.
The One-Stop Career Center at Paul D. Camp – which is staffed by Opportunity Inc. and the Virginia Employment Commission – still has International Paper workers visiting daily with questions about unemployment benefits, jobs or retraining options, said Angela Lawhorne, a VEC representative at the center.
The center recorded 1,300 visits in September, nearly double the 683 it had in September 2009, said Angela Lawhorne. The career center's busiest months during the past year were the two months after International Paper shut down its last machine in April; traffic spiked in May and June, to 1,769 and 1,534 respectively.
While International Paper's shutdown has devastated the Isle of Wight and Franklin communities as a whole, it has spurred some long-time mill employees to make positive, life-changing decisions, said Lisha Wolfe, a career developer with Opportunity Inc.
"This has turned out to be the opportunity of a lifetime, a real blessing, for some people," Wolfe said. "There's no way most people could have quit work and gone back to school fulltime and still be able to take care of a mortgage and bills."
Part of Wolfe's job has been to help mill workers – many who have spent decades as pipefitters or machinists, with skills specific to the paper-making industry – determine what they want to do with their lives after the International Paper closure. The process starts with interviews, where she asks them to think about their dream jobs, careers before the paper mill, and educational backgrounds.
The results have been surprising and rewarding in some cases, Wolfe said.
A former machine operator, who studied recreational therapy in college before returning home to a mill job, is studying to become a physical therapist's assistant. Another is pursuing a career in radiography.
The adjustment back to the classroom hasn't been easy, said Mike Perry, one of Lewis' classmates and for 25 years, a beater engineer on the last paper machine to ceased operating on April 30.
"It's tough," said Perry. "There is a lot of reading comprehension and science and math formulas to remember. I've had to study, but failure is not an option."
International Paper mill closure
This is the third of three stories looking at the effect of the closure one year ago of the International Paper mill in Isle of Wight County on former workers, communities and businesses.