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Jobless at 46, woman goes to school

"It's a computer world now," says Jodi Wooding, who earned an associate degree at River Falls CVTC after her long-time employer closed its plant in Ellsworth. She now works in accounts payable and accounts receivable, is credit coordinator and does Web site maintenance at Paragon Lighting in Hudson.Submitted photo

Jodi Wooding was a single mom with limited education, two children to support and a job she loved -- until the specter that haunts many Americans hit her.

Wooding had worked at Foley Wood Products in Ellsworth for 13 years when in September 2004 the owners announced they'd sold the business and the plant would close.

"My initial thought was, 'What am I going to do? I'm 46 years old. What am I going to do?'" recalls Wooding.

She had a daughter in college and a son in high school. Her job paid well. She hadn't been concerned that her education ended with a high school diploma.

"I thought I would work at Foley for the rest of my life, honest to God," said the Ellsworth woman.

She grew up in Neenah, graduated from high school there and then raised her children in Ellsworth, where jobs were limited.

"It was devastating," said Wooding of losing her job. "It was absolutely devastating. I had to rearrange my money. I had to figure out how I was going to do this."

Pat and Mike Foley offered a bonus to workers who would stay until the plant closed in December. They brought in counselors to help employees evaluate their options.

"They were very nice about it. They gave us plenty of warning," said Wooding of the Foleys.

The employees received information about the Trade Adjustment Act, a federally-funded program that pays tuition and provides books and a small temporary wage for displaced workers.

Wooding chose to work at the plant until it closed. She met with a counselor at Chippewa Valley Technical College in River Falls.

"I just went in there, and I said, 'I don't know what degree I want to go for,'" she recalls.

Wooding had learned to type in high school but hadn't kept up the skill. While she had a computer and Internet connection for her children, she was by no means computer savvy.

She knew how to turn on the computer and double click on her e-mail, but that was about it.

CVTC counselors suggested she enroll in the two-year administrative assistant associate degree program.

"They said it touched on so many areas," said Wooding.

The program teaches word processing, spread sheet and database skills; how to design, create and maintain Web sites; communication skills; how to create and use multi-media and graphics; and how to prepare financial documents, establish priorities and organize work.

Because she stayed on at Foley through December, spring semester had started, and Wooding couldn't enroll in the administrative assistant program until summer semester.

In the meantime she took two classes: Introduction to computers and typing.

"I had to start from the basics," admitted Wooding.

Her first months without a job were tough for a woman who had been working fulltime.

"It took me a month at least to adjust to having all that time," said Wooding. "You can only clean closets so much."

She had leisure time to worry about her future and finances. She cashed in her 401K.

"Between that and the bonus, I made it," she said. Her children had to earn more of their own money.

"We didn't go to out eat," said Wooding. "There were changes, but you adapt."

One plus was that she gave up smoking.

"That whole winter was very weird," said Wooding.

She started school fulltime in summer.

"I treated it like a job," said Wooding, explaining that she spent full work weeks at CVTC.

"It was evident the first day I met Jodi (that) she lacked technical skills," said Ann Kiefer, the business technology instructor at the River Falls campus. "However, she knew what she wanted, went above and beyond course expectations, worked efficiently, yet paid close attention to details."

The lack of technological skills was only temporary. Wooding learned to develop databases, spreadsheets and Web sites, said Kiefer.

"Not only was Jodi a delight to have in class, her efforts in helping other students succeed were obvious and appreciated," said the teacher.

"I just really enjoyed school. I would have gone to school fulltime for the rest of my life if I could have," said Wooding.

"Ann was one of my main teachers, my go-to," said Wooding. "She's fabulous."

Her fellow students included youngsters right out of high school and older pupils like herself.

"There were quite a few of (older students) really. Ann would say, 'You do the best work,'" said Wooding. "We were like sponges."

She completed her associate degree requirements with a 3.98 grade-point average and went through graduation.

"My mom came, and they had this big ceremony," said Wooding. "I was very proud."

Her pride extended to her fellow students, two of whom were women about her age who had lost their jobs when a River Falls plant closed.

"Then the job search started," said Wooding, admitting that was harder than she had expected.

She had done an internship in the financial aid department at UW-River Falls and had the confidence to apply for jobs she never would have considered before.

But while she had five or six interviews, she didn't land a job.

"They were hiring younger people with more experience," said Wooding, who was becoming more and more discouraged.

Then one Sunday morning as she walked near her home as she often did, she ran into Dave Beck, who had worked with her at Foley and now worked at Paragon Lighting in Hudson. He asked how she was doing.

"I looked at him, and I started bawling," recalled Wooding. "I said, 'I can't find a job.'" She figured she had only enough money to last another two weeks.

Beck said, "Can you be at Paragon at seven tomorrow morning?"

Wooding started working in the Paragon shop, but stayed there only a couple of months.

"They needed a receptionist, and they knew about my education," said Wooding of the next step.

She worked in that position for about a month before moving on to a job in the production department, doing data entry, scheduling and inventory.

When the job in accounts payable and accounts receivable came open, she applied and got that. She also works as the company's credit coordinator and does some Web site maintenance.

Her experiences made her a believer in education and lifelong learning, said Wooding.

"I try to tell my kids it isn't money that makes the world go round, but it's nice when you don't have to struggle."

Learning to learn and wanting to learn helps throughout life, said Wooding.

"Otherwise," she said, "I'd still be out in the shop."