Until recently, Shawna Lester was stuck working three to four different part-time jobs at a time, just trying to make ends meet.
“I still wasn’t being successful, and I just got tired of it,” she said.
The 42-year-old mother decided she wanted to learn skills that would bring her a high-wage career, and now, thanks to a $1,000 scholarship from the RevUp Montana program, she’s learning how to be a machinist, a heavy equipment operator, a welder and a commercial truck driver all at the same time at Missoula College.
“Actually, it’s a dream come true,” she said of her Commercial Driver’s License training, which she is midway through. “I’ve always wanted to have my own rig, I’ve always wanted to drive. It’s pure excitement. You know, it’s kind of important because I bring materials to locations that people want to buy or need. So it’s a benefit to everybody, and I have the opportunity to see the United States and make decent wages."
Lester said financial aid didn’t cover the total cost of her education, so the scholarship has helped a lot.
She found out about RevUp only after she had enrolled at Missoula College.
“I met (Workforce Navigator) Mickey Lyngholm when I came through the facility for my orientation during the summer,” she said. “Anything I need, she helps me with. She is my backup on tutoring, helping me relieve stress, everything.”
Lester said she is enrolled in so many programs because if one doesn’t work out, she’ll have a backup plan.
“The experience will be educational,” she said.
Also, the fields she is studying are all linked, because heavy equipment operators often need to be able to weld or machine to repair parts. Additionally, heavy equipment operators who have a CDL are more desirable to employers because they can drive backhoes and other equipment to the job site on semitrailers.
Lester said she is providing a good example to her children even though she enrolled in college later than most.
“I am able to show my children that no matter what age you are you can do that,” she said. “There are more people out there that understand that it’s OK. It’s not about age, it’s about understanding that you want to be better than you are now. You can better yourself. You’re not stuck in your job. If you go with a career that you love, you’re going to be successful, you’re going to be able to pay your debts back, you’re going to be able to go above and beyond what you’re doing now."
Lester said she is positive she’s going to be able to find a good-paying job when she graduates in 2018.
“I picked fields that are extremely important to the system,” she said. “There’s always construction that needs to be done, there’s always welding to be done. Machining is no longer a dying breed. It’s actually important that you have an education in it. With me having a certificate saying I have graduated from these programs will up my ante and make it easier to find what I need.”
She doesn’t think her debt load will be crushing either.
“I don’t think it will be that substantial compared to what I’ve been doing all my life,” she said. “You know, I think it weighs out in the long run. It’s probably the best thing I could have ever done for my self. There’s challenges, but when you go to a new job there’s challenges. You’ve just got to find help where you can get it, which the school has tons of help.”
Mark Dodge, the College’s CDL instructor, is paid through the RevUp program funding. He said he’s trained 35 students and 34 of them got jobs after they graduated - and the other one probably just decided he didn’t want to work in the field.
“It’s a lucrative industry,” he explained.
Montana Department of Labor and Industry commissioner Pam Bucy said she feels like the RevUp program has been a success.
“Yes, RevUp Montana has been successful both in modernizing training in the industry fields of energy and advanced manufacturing, but also in fundamentally changing the system of how we train,” she said. “We have collaborated to a much greater extent with business to design programs that align to their changing needs. In a very short amount of time, RevUp has helped implement significant changes and train over 2,000 students in just two years.”
Bucy said her department’s projections indicate that Montana will add 6,500 jobs per year during the next decade.
“Montana’s economy is strong and finished this past year with momentum for 2016,” she said. “Our unemployment rate is considered prime at a healthy 4.0 percent. And for the first time in our state’s history, we have over half-a-million employed Montanans including adding over 10,000 new jobs in 2015.”
Her only concern is that there won’t be enough replacements for the 130,000 workers who are soon to retire.
Currently, there are 123,000 Montanans ages 16-24 available to fill those positions,” she said. “Thus, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that every Montanan is working to their highest skill level in the shortest amount of time possible.”
That’s where the RevUp program comes in.
“We simply do not have time to allow folks to take two, four and six years completely out of the workforce to receive their training,” she said. “RevUp Montana is critical in making sure our state’s labor force pipeline is streamlined and providing opportunities for Montanans to join the workforce as quickly as possible. With RevUp Montana, our state is not only poised to meet our upcoming workforce needs but this training program is significant in helping to continue growing our economy.”
Montana’s two-year colleges play a pivotal role in the state’s economy, and will continue to do so, Bucy added.
“Montana’s two-year colleges are absolutely critical to providing a skilled workforce for Montana businesses,” she said. “However, it is also critical that industry play an increasing role in developing our future labor pool. It is only through the combined efforts of the private sector, two-year colleges, our universities and Montana Department of Labor and Industry that our state can chart a successful plan for workforce development into the future.”