CARTERVILLE - When Technicolor Universal Media Services in Pinckneyville closed its doors in March 2007, 440 Southern Illinoisans were left stranded, many without a clue of where to go or how to move forward.
Among those laid off when the plant, Pinckneyville's largest employer, shut down was Leigh Ann Hacker of Hurst. Hacker, a mother of two, had no idea what she would do.
Then she and her co-workers were approached by Man-Tra-Con, a Marion-based organization aimed at providing training and helping Southern Illinoisans find employment. The organization helped her explore the possibility of returning to school and provided financial assistance to do so.
"They paid for my gas, they paid for my books, they helped out with everything we needed," Hacker said. "I wouldn't have gone back to school otherwise. I couldn't afford it."
Hacker enrolled at John A. Logan College in Carterville, where she studied medical transcription and data entry. She completed an internship at Carterville Family Practice Center in November, and was hired full-time as a medical transcriptionist in December. She will graduate from Logan in May with two associate degrees.
"There's no telling what would have happened if I hadn't gone back to school," she said.
Hacker doesn't stand alone in her struggles.
In the past three years, Southern Illinois has seen the closure of several other large employers, including a Herrin Maytag warehouse in December 2006, the TUMS plant in 2007 and Marion's Circuit City warehouse in February.
Unemployment levels in Southern Illinois reached 9.3 percent, higher than an average of 8.6 statewide, in February. Franklin County ranked the worst in the region at 12.4 percent, while Jackson County had the lowest rates at 7.1. Alexander, Jefferson, Massac, Washington, White and Williamson counties ranked below the regional average, while Gallatin, Hamilton, Hardin, Johnson, Perry, Pope, Pulaski, Randolph, Saline and Union rank higher than 9.3 percent.
In February 2003, Southern Illinois' unemployment rate sat at 7.7 percent, while state rates reached 7.2. Rates dropped annually both regionally and statewide for the next few years. Southern Illinois rates reached as low as 6.3 percent in February 2006, and state levels dropped to 5.2 in February 2007.
"People have said we're the first to experience downturns and the last to see upswings," said Kathy Lively, executive director of Man-Tra-Con.
Closures of the large-scale Southern Illinois employers marked the obvious beginning of an economic downturn, a sign Man-Tra-Con's services would be needed across the region, Lively said.
A transition team of about 60 people representing local leaders from community colleges, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, health care, human services and government entities was assembled, she said. They tried to envision all possible problems and ways they could help those in need.
"Southern Illinois always rallies to support people in time of need, and that was a good example of people coming together to help," Lively said. The organization has been preparing to launch a series of skills training and college orientation workshops later this month.
With many companies trying to avoid mass job reductions, layoffs in groups of 10 to 25 have become more common, Lively said. This takes away from a sense of camaraderie felt by employees from Maytag and TUMS who lost their jobs and went back to college or training together.
Hacker said she definitely felt that camaraderie with some of her TUMS coworkers. She has remained in touch with some of them, and several of her professors from Logan who helped her transition back into college as a nontraditional student.
"Even the people being laid off, they kind of miss that camaraderie our larger groups have, where they're all commiserating the same problems at the same time," Lively said.
Philip Minnis, dean of workforce development and community education at JALC, said the departments he oversees traditionally have participation running parallel to business stability.
The college's programs work with business to retain employees and help attract new businesses to the region, he said. Additionally, the college works with existing businesses to provide training and development courses to employees.
"Many of our businesses in the area cut back on their training," Minnis said of the past two years, as economic hardships began to hit the region.
The college has been training about the same number of individuals, just in smaller groups, he said. However, participation has been on the rise recently, possibly signaling early signs of an economic turnaround.
"It's beginning to pick up a little again," Minnis said. "We're seeing some signs it might be coming back."