Here’s how a steelworker became a nurse
Jacob Smith knows deep down there will be more layoffs at Granite City Works.
The 34-year-old from Highland worked maintenance there off and on for eight years between layoffs — first from 2007 to 2008, and again from 2010 to 2015.
He loved his work, the same work his dad had been doing since the mid-1990s at the steel mill in Granite City. The pay was good and he liked using the mechanical skills he had learned from his dad, a former car mechanic.
Layoffs always seemed to be lurking around the corner in the steel industry, though.
“Layoffs are not an unfamiliar thing,” Smith said. “I didn’t want to go through that again. I wanted more stability.”
Over the years, Smith worked in restaurants, construction and steel, but he never used the nurse assistant degree he finished in 2003. He made more money working in restaurants and the steel industry. Still, health care was always the profession he loved, a profession with better stability.
Going back for a degree to become a registered nurse was daunting, too. He needed to work full-time to pay the bills and take care of his son. Plus, he had always worked in jobs that only required a high-school education.
“I didn’t think I was smart enough,” Smith said.
But there was no end in sight to the layoffs in 2015, when U.S. Steel idled the Granite City plant and laid off more than 2,000 workers. Representatives from the state came to talk with workers about programs and options available during unemployment.
That’s where Smith learned about the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act, an assistance program that helps manufacturing workers out of a job because of global trade. U.S. Steel idled the plant partially because of illegally dumped cheap steel from foreign countries.
The program Smith chose provides an additional stipend to unemployment payments and also helps pay for school during unemployment.
“This was my chance,” Smith said. “This was my opportunity.”
He finally had the time he needed to attend a fast-track daytime nursing program at Maryville University in St. Louis. He also had just enough extra financial support from the assistance program to get by.
In October 2015, Smith went back to school. On July 8 this year, he started his new job as an emergency room nurse at Saint Louis University Hospital.
“I love learning. I’m in a good field for that,” Smith said. “And I don’t have to worry about getting laid off because some foreign country is dumping steel into America.”
You can do it, too
Smith said those two years of studying and squeezing by were far from easy. He was in debt from a mortgage he couldn’t afford, a divorce and helping to raise his now 13-year-old son. The savings he stowed away during his years of employment at Granite City Works disappeared quickly, despite aide from the assistance program.
“Two and a half years without a job, that’s a lot of time. I was skating by,” Smith said. “Everything had to work out. If it didn’t, I don’t know.”
Between health insurance through the Affordable Care Act and a part-time job in Veterans Affairs at St. Louis Medical Center, Smith stayed afloat.
“We’re all faced with these choices, with finances, making sacrifices,” Smith said. “But to progress into a different career, there’s no real right or wrong way to do it.”
Smith said even if manufacturing workers aren’t laid off, they should continue building their skills, even if it’s one class or one certificate at a time.
“I would recommend that to everybody,” Smith said. “You have to keep furthering your skills.”
By the time Smith was laid off the second time in 2015, he had already finished his general studies classes by taking night and weekend classes. His bosses at Granite City Works supported him in whatever way they could and his co-workers helped, too, by switching shifts to free Smith up to go to class.
“I did everything I could to keep both going,” Smith said. “If I could go back... I would have earned my degree right out of high school. But I’ve experienced a lot of things. It’s a good feeling to know your struggle, know what you’ve been through and where you’re headed.”
Perhaps the best reward for his efforts, Smith said, is the way his son sees him now.
“He has seen what I’ve gone through,” Smith said. “He sees what you can do in your life.”
Resources in the metro-east
State and federal programs administered through local agencies provide help to workers who are laid off, want to improve their skills or explore new careers.
“Universal services are available in our office,” said Madison County Employment and Training Director Tony Fuhrmann. “There is no eligibility in our office. You can walk in with a dollar in your pocket or you can have a million dollars in your pocket.”
Here are some resources in Madison County and St. Clair County.
Madison County Employment and Training (618-296-4445, 101 E. Edwardsville Road, Wood River, IL 62095)
▪ Bi-monthly job search workshops
▪ Connection to services offered by Illinois workNet, including job listings, resources for laid-off workers, apprenticeship opportunities, career counseling and training
▪ Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act federal grant funds for eligible students and prospective students interested in vocational training or college and are in need of financial aid
▪ Specific programs for adult workers with disabilities, criminal records or who receive public assistance
▪ Funded training for dislocated workers and transitioning military personnel
▪ In-school and out-of-school work experience programs geared toward youth ages 18 to 24
▪ Assistance for workers displaced because of foreign trade
▪ Career specialists who can help with career transition planning
St. Clair County Workforce Development Group (618-277-3090, 4519 West Main St., Belleville, IL 62223)
▪ Job search and placement assistance, labor market information, training provider performance and training cost information
▪ Connection to apprenticeship programs, including U.S. Department of Labor-funded Registered Apprenticeship Programs offering classroom training, on-the-job training, work mentorship, progressive wages and national occupational credentials
▪ Access to resources through the Workforce Investment Act, which helps both job seekers and workers hoping to go further in their careers
▪ Access to Southwestern Illinois workNet Centers in the following counties:
- St. Clair County: 4519 West Main St., Belleville, IL 62223; 618-277-3090
- Clinton County: 851 Fairfax, Carlyle, IL 62231; 618-594-4520
- Randolph County: Randolph County Courthouse 1 Taylor St., Chester, IL 62233; 618-826-4709
- Washington County: 455 South Washington Rm. 32, Nashville, IL 62263; 618-327-4191
- Monroe County: Monroe County Courthouse 100 S. Main St. Rm.19, Waterloo, IL 62298; 618-939-3332