Tyler employees get fresh startPublished 3:54pm Thursday, May 10, 2012
When graduation rolled around at Southwestern Michigan College Saturday, many students couldn’t wait to get started on the new chapter of their lives. For former Tyler Refrigeration employees, they were ready to take on completely new career paths.
Three years ago this month, Tyler Refrigeration announced it would be closing its doors, leaving hundreds of employees without work and wondering “what next?” Some of the former employees decided to get back in the classroom and earn degrees in hopes of joining the workforce once again.
“I was working at Tyler for 17 years,” Gary Crouch, a former machine programmer, said. “It was one of those places people assumed would just be there forever.”
But when the announcement came that Crouch would no longer be employed with Tyler, the considered the prospect of attending college.
“Right after everything happened, I was really confused,” Crouch said. “I had been attending college-level courses already that were geared towards my position with Tyler.”
While school was always the first choice for Crouch and other Tyler employees, he faced the problem of paying for the tuition and books. Enter Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a federal program aimed at helping trade employees find new employment and training after their current positions are taken overseas.
“Through TAA, we were allowed to go through Michigan Works, maintain unemployment and have our tuition and books paid for,” Crouch said.
Cora Lolmaugh, who worked for 37 years at Tyler as an executive office assistant, also took advantage of the assistance through TAA and Michigan Works.
“Every one of us got the opportunity to do this,” Lolmaugh said. “We could receive up to $15,000 for any education path and 85 percent of our Cobra insurance was paid.”
After the plans were set in place, Lolmaugh, Crouch and other former Tyler employees hit the books, taking up new fields of study or furthering their current knowledge.
For Kelly Courtney, who received her associate’s degree Saturday in applied science and health information technology, the chance to go back to school was not just a want; it had become a need. Tyler employed her for 11 years.
“I needed to do this to ensure I would get another job,” Courtney said. “I treated it like a job and worked at it as hard as I would have when I was employed.”
But the road wasn’t always easy. For Crouch, who received his associate’s degree in information systems, trying to carve out time for homework posed a challenge some days.
“It was never the quantity or the complexity of the homework, it was the fact that I did it actually at home,” Crouch said. “When I was employed, coming home meant I was free to tend to my family and they had to adjust to me still working even though I was physically there.”
Courtney and Lolmaugh also had to find new ways to fit a school schedule into their daily lives.
“It came down to good time management, especially with homework and projects,” Courtney said.
Lolmaugh, who received her associate’s degree in applied science and business, made adjustments in how she managed finances.
“My biggest challenge was getting the financial aspect together so I could still survive while not working and going to school,” she said.
Finally, when graduation day arrived, the biggest graduating class in SMC’s history donned caps and gowns to cross the stage. More than 10 former Tyler employees were among them.
“When Tyler closed, I was really worried, angry, sad,” Courtney said. “But last Saturday, I was really proud. Not just of myself, but of all the Tyler people.”
Crouch agreed, saying he will begin his internship at the Buchanan Arts Center this summer and, hopefully, find a new job.
“I’m starting to see a lot of things I can do,” he said. “There’s more available.”
Courtney, who has begun her job search, said she hopes to find a place that will allow her to put her new degree to use. Lolmaugh will wrap up a psychology course and begin an internship this summer.
“I started working the day I turned 18, and I didn’t have to look for a job for a long time,” she said. “I feel like this chance was a new beginning.”