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Program helps unemployed get back to school

PADUCAH — Larry Upshaw had worked 11 years in sales at Carquest Auto Parts on Bridge Street when word came in late 2005 that the store was closing.

"My mother died two weeks earlier, and then I lost my job," said Upshaw, 44, Paducah. "It was pretty devastating."

He knew he had no time to waste with a wife and two middle school-age daughters to support.

Janie Pogue went home in August 2007 when another firm bought out her employer, WN Albums and Frames of Benton, but didn't retain the staff.

Like Upshaw, Pogue figured she needed more education to find a new job, but she didn't qualify for financial aid because of her family income, and she couldn't afford tuition.

"Although my husband has a good job, we have one teenage son still at home and wanted to make sure he could go to college," said Pogue, 39. "We didn't have the money for me to go back to school."

Upshaw and Pogue joined the thousands of other Western Kentucky jobless who have filed for unemployment benefits in recent years. In doing so, they learned of the Workforce Investment Act, or WIA, a federal program that offered to pay for their tuition, textbooks and $10 daily gas money to attend college.

"There was no way otherwise that I could've gone back to school, work and support my family," Upshaw said.

Nearly 21/2 years later, he will graduate from West Kentucky Community & Technical College in May with associate's degrees in science and applied science in computer networking technology.

Pogue is scheduled to graduate in December with an associate's degree in business administration with an accounting emphasis.

Gov. Steve Beshear and Kentucky Community and Technical College System President Michael B. McCall recently announced a temporary program designed to help displaced workers who might otherwise fall through the cracks.

KCTCS Career Transitions, offered through the statewide system of 16 colleges, waives half the tuition cost of up to three credit hours per term in open-enrollment courses. The program is for people who applied for unemployment after Oct. 1 and enrolled in classes after March 24. It is available only for spring (late-start students), summer and fall 2009 semesters.

Each college provides displaced Kentucky workers with a coordinator to help steer them through schooling.

The new program is beyond the typical financial aid and WIA assistance, Deborah Smith, Career Transitions coordinator and admissions adviser at WKCTC, said.

"This is really intended to be what we call the last dollar," she said. "It is very individualized by assessing needs and seeing what it will take to get people through classes and back to work as soon as possible."

Smith said some former workers will need transition courses to build up their skills to entry level college classes. Career Transitions helps pay those costs, whereas WIA normally pays only for classes in high-tech, high-demand fields, she said.

"We have offered a variety of services for displaced workers for many years," WKCTC President Barbara Veazey said. "This new initiative really complements what we provide and will make the process easier for those individuals who find themselves without a job and looking for help."