THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION. APRIL 22, 2013. Bobby Curran grew up in a working-class neighborhood here in Baltimore, finished high school, and followed his grandfather's steel-toed bootprints straight to Sparrows Point, a 3,000-acre sprawl of industry on the Chesapeake Bay. College wasn't part of the plan. A gritty but well-paying job at the RG Steel plant was Mr. Curran's ticket to a secure middle-class life.
As a member of a mobile maintenance crew, Mr. Curran did "anything and everything," he says, to keep the plant going. He cut bricks out of a fiery furnace, cleaned coal from the hulls of incoming supply ships. In its heyday, the proud plant had been the world's largest steel mill, forging girders for the Golden Gate Bridge and once employing 30,000 workers.
But by the new millennium, bankruptcy rumors swirled with the iron-ore dust that coated aging equipment. The plant changed hands several times. Then, last June, union officials delivered the grim news to hundreds of steelworkers packed into a union hall: The mill was closing for good.
It was hard to take, says Mr. Curran, 58. "I thought the plant would always be there."
His sense of himself and his community was shattered, along with hard-earned plans to relax and ride his Harley. "I was two years away from a full retirement," Mr. Curran says, "and the carpet was pulled out from under me." One laid-off steelworker shot himself.
New options are slim. As foreign imports drive down the price of American-made steel, automation and offshoring have eliminated jobs. In all manufacturing across the state of Maryland, 21,000 positions have disappeared in the last five years—and more than 70,000 in the past two decades, according to labor officials. In Baltimore, manufacturing employment dropped by 38 percent between 2000 and 2012, as big names like General Motors and Westinghouse shut down plants, the Brookings Institution reports. Nationally, the drop has been about 31 percent.
That promise of a stable livelihood that generations of high-school graduates banked on has faded. The path to a decent living, many older workers are discovering, now must pass through college, even if that seems like an uncomfortable place.
"The challenge for today's workers is that the jobs that will be available all require some kind of postsecondary education," says Mark Edwards, executive director of Opportunity Nation, a coalition of nonprofit organizations, businesses, educational institutions, and other groups dedicated to expanding job opportunities for low-income populations.
"Employers are demanding a set of specific skills," Mr. Edwards says. "These aren't the voc-tech jobs of 1975."
Community colleges pride themselves on helping workers retool, and in the wake of RG Steel's closure, the Community College of Baltimore County stood ready to serve its local residents and economy. But officials at the six-site system knew they faced a monumental challenge in reaching out to 2,000 laid-off workers, most of whom didn't have a clue about college.
The institution mailed letters and tried to get the word out on the local news. In the fall, it set up a cubicle in a work-force-development center near the old plant, and two academic advisers staffed it three days a week.
Even though the college was offering a route to new jobs, higher education was a tough sell to many of the laid-off workers, says Brian Penn, who runs the college's heating, ventilating, air-conditioning, and energy technology program. "It's a group of men who think college is for other people."
Generous government education benefits were enough to erase some people's doubts about whether they belonged. But the paperwork and red tape between students and their tuition assistance prompted some to quit before they had even begun.
Without additional training, though, those who opt to hit the job market face tough odds. A few have found work dismantling the steel plant, as it is sold off piece by piece at auction. When that work is done, they will have to grapple again with what comes next.
After the mill shut down, any dislocated laborer who told a state or county caseworker he'd be open to college got to sit down with one of the community-college advisers. Small talk and questions about the jobs the steelworkers had held tended to put them at ease, says Jesse Kessinger, who has coordinated the college's outreach.
The goal in that first conversation was to help the laid-off workers identify skills they'd developed over decades at the plant and explore how they might adapt them to 21st-century jobs. But the idea of an academic program was daunting to many who had envisioned a career at Sparrows Point.
"A lot of them were afraid they couldn't handle college," Mr. Kessinger says, "especially if they came to the Point right after high school and hadn't had a very good experience with education."
To get federal benefits covering tuition, fees, books, and some living expenses, the workers had to enroll in college full time. "That's intimidating for a lot of folks," Mr. Kessinger says. "If we had our way, we'd let them dip their toes in part time, to get used to college again."
Despite plenty of individual attention from academic and career advisers, who helped prospective students chart a course, any workers who tried to enroll met a tangle of overlapping and sometimes conflicting requirements from the college and the county, state, and federal governments. When the semester was about to start and students' benefits hadn't come through, college officials extended book vouchers and told the steelworkers to show up for class anyway. Meanwhile, government caseworkers warned them they'd be kicked out if they weren't approved.
Such headaches were enough to derail some would-be students. "These folks are coming from a structured union environment, and suddenly they're having to navigate a complicated bureaucracy," says Matthew Lang, the community college's dean of continuing education and client development.
Others were frustrated to learn how much less they'd be earning, even with new credentials. "They're looking to us to change their career path, but I had to tell them the first day that they're not going to make the money they were making before," says Mr. Penn, of the HVAC program. "A lot of them made $28 an hour, and I can only get them a job for $14 an hour."
The flood of applicants the college was expecting never materialized. About 170, or fewer than 10 percent, of the final group of RG Steel employees have signed up for classes at the community college so far, about half of them for credit. Many of the workers, frustrated and demoralized, didn't see how time in a classroom could help them when they just wanted to get back to blue-collar jobs. Many are in their mid-to-late 50s and hope they can hold out to retirement.
"We've done all we can to reach the folks," Mr. Kessinger says.
Mr. Curran was willing to give it a shot because he remembered how he "cried like a baby," he says, when his son, Bobby Jr., graduated from Towson University, in 2010. The older Mr. Curran figured he'd try a career in something he knew.
"I'd earned my Ph.D. in partying back in the day," he says, smiling through a bushy handlebar mustache, the long silver hair that had earned him the nickname "Hippie" now neatly trimmed. He thought he might make a pretty good drug counselor.
So Mr. Curran enrolled in an associate-degree program in chemical-dependency counseling, which included general-education courses.
He was soon juggling English, algebra, and two chemical-dependency courses at the college's Dundalk campus, the one closest to the shuttered plant. In algebra, he got extra help in a math lab and tutoring from his daughter-in-law, a teacher he calls a math whiz. Bobby Jr., whose photo, in cap and gown, is up on his father's living-room wall, helped him with his homework.
Once in a while, Mr. Curran passed another steelworker on the campus. Among their most popular programs have been truck driving, air-conditioning repair, welding, and surgical technology.
Ronald Knauff, a third-generation steel man, picked heating and air conditioning. He had liked repairing machinery at the mill, and he thought his skills would transfer. About two decades ago, he'd had a brush with college, learning how to repair heavy machines in a training program at the Baltimore County community college.
Before Mr. Knauff decided for sure, Mr. Penn showed him the program's shops, labs, and classrooms. "We talked for a long time and he seemed really genuine," says Mr. Knauff, his 6-foot-6 frame hunched on the sofa of his tidy living room, decorated with sports memorabilia, his wife's knickknacks, and family photos.
In November, with Mr. Penn's encouragement, Mr. Knauff enrolled, and in March, he completed a basic certificate in heating and air-conditioning repair. He was ready to move on to an advanced certification, but the transition wasn't as smooth as he'd expected.
The laid-off steelworkers' federal benefits—for people who've lost their jobs because of foreign competition—extend unemployment compensation and pay for job training, as well as provide temporary wage subsidies for new, lower-paying jobs. First, prospective students must apply to the U.S. Department of Labor, detailing their college costs. Then, they wait.
"By the time the paperwork is processed, the class is filled, or it's already started, and you have to start all over," says Mr. Knauff. When his paperwork got held up, he missed the deadline for the advanced air-conditioning class.
The instructor was just as frustrated. "The RG Steel guys would all meet in my classroom, and one guy would say 'We have to have our paperwork by tomorrow,' and another guy would say he was told two weeks," says Mr. Penn. The community college tried to help, but there was only so much they could do, he says. "Our caseworkers were understaffed and overworked, and there was a lot of confusion."
Dozens of steelworkers who initially said they wanted to enroll in college fell by the wayside, either discouraged by the paperwork delays or overwhelmed by the rigors of academic work.
Mr. Knauff's instructors told him that if he stuck around long enough to earn an associate degree, it would show future employers he was serious—and could open the door to a better career.
But Mr. Knauff wanted to spend as little time as he could in a classroom before starting to earn money again. "I can read and write and understand English, and that's as much as I need," he says. "I don't think that taking all those academic classes would make a hill of beans in getting a job."
Retraining older workers whose jobs are becoming obsolete is a critical mission for community colleges—a pledge to individuals as well as the local economy.
The colleges, with their diverse populations, "understand where these people are in life," says Gardner A. Carrick, vice president for strategic initiatives at the Manufacturing Institute, part of the National Association of Manufacturers. And the institutions are poised to provide a reality check, he says, on what can come next.
"When you've been working in one industry your entire career," Mr. Carrick says, "you're not necessarily up to speed on what's happening in the broader workplace."
That shift can be sensitive, says the Community College of Baltimore County's president, Sandra L. Kurtinitis.
"There's a sadness and malaise that comes at the end of an industry," says Ms. Kurtinitis, whose father was a coal miner "back when coal was king." The challenge for colleges, the president says, is to show prospective students an opportunity to start something new.
Natalie Dowell, who spent 16 years at RG Steel, most recently as a crane operator, is hopeful but cautious. "Being a third-generation steelworker, I expected to retire from there, but with the economy and everything that's happened to us, it's scary," says Ms. Dowell, 46, with green eyes and long, blond hair.
During a previous layoff at the plant, the single mother started positioning herself for another line of work. She took a couple of courses at the community college, in medical terminology and health-information privacy, thinking they could help her get a job in the medical field, which she heard was promising.
When Ms. Dowell lost her job and health benefits—the same week her car died—the college's recruiters told her she'd have good job prospects in health care. Optimistic, she enrolled in an eight-month Central Service Technician continuing-education program that is teaching her how to disinfect, sterilize, and package surgical instruments.
That work is stable, she figures. "There are always going to be sick people," she says, "and they aren't going to go overseas to get treated."
So far, Ms. Dowell likes her program. "There's a lot of information to retain, and I'm just praying I pass my final on Monday," she said one afternoon this month. "I've got another on Thursday. How do you study for everything all at the same time?"
Making the shift from hoisting 560,000-pound ladles in a noisy, dusty steel mill to disinfecting delicate instruments in a sterile basement will be a challenge, Ms. Dowell says. She misses her old job and the adrenaline rush that came with it.
The former crane operator is also learning that no prospective employer will pay what she was earning at the plant: up to $23 an hour, which helped her support her daughter, now 22. "My old job provided us with a pretty good lifestyle," Ms. Dowell says.
But now she's looking ahead, hoping to find a new one that will give her a steady paycheck again.
From the highest point of the community college's Dundalk campus, the furnace of RG Steel still towers in the distance.
Aside from that, the campus is unfamiliar turf, and Mr. Curran found it hard to adapt.
"The first night I went to class in English," he says, "I'd left my reading glasses in my truck, and I couldn't even find the button on the tower to turn the computer on." In the classes that followed, he would type uncomfortably alongside students less than half his age.
"I did real good on a couple of stories I wrote," Mr. Curran says, but before long, he was falling behind.
He struggled in algebra, even with the math lab and his daughter-in-law's tutoring. Bobby Jr. pleaded with him to hang in. But three weeks into the semester, on the last day he could withdraw without it showing up on his record, he gave up.
"I tried as hard as I could, but I couldn't keep up with the kids," Mr. Curran says.
"It broke my heart to drop my classes and quit school," he says. He worried about disappointing his children. "I felt like I was letting them down, and I felt like I was letting myself down. I wanted them to watch me, their dumb-ass dad, walking across that stage."
Before he had time to hatch another plan, a couple of his buddies from the steel mill told him about a training program for building-maintenance technicians they'd signed up for at North American Trade School. During the tense weeks before the mass layoffs, the local for-profit institution had sent representatives to union meetings.
The course sounded reassuringly familiar to Mr. Curran—less intimidating than a community college, with its academic orientation and vast array of certificate, degree, and continuing-education choices. His buddies' program covers how to fix air-conditioning and heating units, lay bricks, build roofs: "everything from A to Z about working on a house," he says, encouraged. About 52 fellow steelworkers have enrolled at North American.
John Meissner, director of admissions there, says the school has marketed its programs as a way to get back to work as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, among the steelworkers, the word is out that a former pipe fitter known as Porkchop went to North American for air-conditioning repair and ended up with a few job offers.
Not everyone has been so lucky.
Mr. Knauff, who still has the basic certificate in air-conditioning repair and is starting a program in welding next month, has sent out nearly 100 résumés since his layoff, he says. So far, he's gotten four responses: two e-mail rejections and two interviews, which didn't go anywhere. Everybody seems to want two to four years' experience, he says, even for entry-level jobs.
"I've gotten to the point where I'm thinking, 'Don't I have any viable skills anyone's interested in?'" Mr. Knauff says.
He drives out of his way to avoid seeing the idled plant that is being sold for scrap. But he agrees to accompany a reporter to the site where cranes sit quiet and buildings once teeming with production are vacant and still. He describes with pride how his plant boasted the largest blast furnace in North America—the Beast of the East, they called it.
When a security guard tells Mr. Knauff he's trespassing on private property, he bristles. But he climbs into his supersized Ford truck and drives off.
Back home, he tries to gear up for another round of his job search. "I've been flooded with so much information," he says, "that I'm afraid if I don't get a job soon that will let me start applying it, I'll forget it."
As they chase down prospects, trying to find one that will pan out, the workers who once formed a brotherhood now drift along separate paths, swayed by leads, as well as pangs of self-doubt. They spend a lot of time waiting: for benefits to roll in, employers to reply, classes to start, or paperwork to go through.
Bobby Curran is tentatively registered for classes at North American next month, and he'll try it, he says, if he doesn't get a job first.
Right now, he is following a new lead. A tunnel-making company is supposed to set up shop at Sparrows Point, and Mr. Curran has applied for a job there. The community college is hoping to help train the tunnel maker's workers, so if campus officials and Mr. Curran both make good pitches, he might get another shot at a college credential.
He just tried that, but in this economy, he knows he must remain open to college. "I don't know if they give you two strikes or if I'm already out," he says with a shrug. "But I'm ready to go back."