Unemployed plant workers in Beaver County schooled for new jobs
November 2, 2014 12:00 AM
Ben Moritz was laid off from Horsehead Holdings' in Monaca and is now learning HVAC technology at Rosedale Technical College in Crafton. After Mr. Moritz completes the 16-month course he will have an Associates degree in HVAC Technology.
Ken Wallis, of New Sewickley and Robert Leist, of Big Beaver, were laid off from Horsehead Holdings' in Monaca and are now being trained in diesel technology at Rosedale Technical College in Crafton. The two will complete the 16 month-course and finish with an Associates Degree in Diesel Technology.
Robert Leist, of Big Beaver, and Ken Wallis, of New Sewickley, were laid off from Horsehead Holdings' in Monaca and are now being trained in diesel technology at Rosedale Technical College in Crafton. The two will complete the 16 month-course and finish with an Associates Degree in Diesel Technology.
By Len Boselovic / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ken Wallis will spend a rare Christmas with his family this year, something the 55-year-old, laid-off Beaver County resident hopes he will get to do more often.
“In 28 years, I had four Christmases off,” said Mr. Wallis, who was one of about 500 workers who lost their jobs because Horsehead Holdings closed its zinc smelting plant in Monaca in April.
Mr. Wallis’ holiday vacation is really a semester break, something he hasn't had since 1976 — his senior year at Freedom Area high school. He and about a dozen other Horsehead workers are enrolled at Rosedale Technical College in Kennedy, where they are taking advantage of funding from a federal program for retraining unemployed workers.
The workers, who range in age from 21 to 59, hope the 16-month degree programs will help them land jobs that provide a steady paycheck without the long hours, erratic schedules and grimy work conditions they dealt with at Horsehead. While some do not expect to make as much as they did under Horsehead’s union pay scale, they expect other benefits will help offset a smaller paycheck.
“I’m hoping this keeps me out of shift work,” said Ben Moritz, 45, who worked at the smelter for 14 years before losing his job Dec. 30. “Shift work is not good for anybody. You don’t eat right. You don’t sleep right.”
The former Horsehead workers are collecting unemployment benefits while their retraining is being paid for under a trade adjustment assistance program authorized by a 1974 law. The federal program will cover tuition, which is about $27,000, plus books, tools and related expenses. The program is administered by state agencies such as Pennsylvania’s Department of Labor and Industry.
The laid off workers qualified for the trade adjustment assistance program because of high imports of galvanized steel, a corrosion-resistant steel coated with zinc. To compete with the cheap imports, Horsehead built a new, lower cost smelter in North Carolina and moved production of zinc oxide to a Canadian plant. Other workers found other jobs, retired, are unemployed or enrolled in other retraining programs.
At Rosedale, they are learning diesel and automotive mechanics; how to install and repair heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems; and electrical or industrial technology. Several said the skills were something they wanted to learn all along, but their hefty paychecks kept them from doing that.
“I was two years in [at Horsehead],” said Sean Sullivan, 21. “You’re comfortable. You’re making great money, but it’s a crappy job.”
The Monaca resident said he attended college briefly before going to work at the smelter as a “shovel jockey,” which is what entry level workers at the smelter were called.
He said he left college because the courses he was required to take had nothing to do with what he was interested in learning.
“I hated it,” Mr. Sullivan said. “Here, you use your hands and learn what you’re supposed to learn.”
Rosedale’s job placement rate attracted many of the workers to the school. President Dennis Wilke said 91 percent of Rosedale students who graduated in the 2013-14 school year found work. The placement rate was 100 percent for HVAC students.
“There are plenty of jobs for the things we teach,” Mr. Wilke said. “One of our graduates had seven job offers.”
The Horsehead workers had to pass math, aptitude and other tests to make sure they could handle the course material before they were admitted. Only 65 percent of those who apply for Rosedale’s HVAC program are accepted.
“They wouldn't be here if they couldn't pass those tests,” admissions director Debbie Bier said of the students from Horsehead. “We don’t want someone to come in to fill a seat.”
Mr. Wilke said the age range of the students from Horsehead improves their learning experience.
Younger students help older ones learn new technologies as well as the importance of enthusiasm. The older students are role models for the younger ones when it comes to discipline and professionalism, he said.
But Mr. Wallis, whose son graduated from Rosedale’s diesel program four years ago, believes he can more than hold his own academically with the younger students.
“Some of the kids, technology-wise, are not farther along than I am,” he said.
Len Boselovic: email@example.com or 412-263-1941.
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