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President Obama goes to Elkhart, Indiana today, in his latest trip to a hard hit manufacturing region to talk about reviving the economy. Just south of Elkhart is Kokomo, Indiana, where the unemployment rate is hovering around 20 percent. Indiana's a state that's unusually dependent on manufacturing, including auto manufacturing. And many longtime autoworkers there are now choosing to get the education they passed up years ago. From member station WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana, Arianna Prothero reports.
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ARIANNA PROTHERO: The roll call at Kokomo's Ivy Tech Community College branch is longer since the latest bout of economic troubles hit the U.S. auto industry. The school's ranks are swelling with laid-off factory workers, many who are attending college with the help of Trade Adjustment Assistance. It's a federal program that pays for retraining of workers whose jobs have been hurt by foreign trade or competition.
Kim Hatfield is one of those students. After working for Chrysler for 10 years, Hatfield was laid off in February of last year. One year to the day of losing her job, she suffered a massive heart attack that her doctors say was caused in part by the stress of unemployment. With the financial help offered through the TAA program, Hatfield decided it was time for a change.
Ms. KIM HATFIELD (Student, Ivy Tech): My thing was is, like, I thought about it previously, and at this point it was like, man, this is a great opportunity because it's paid for. I mean, our books are even paid for. So it was like you'd be a fool not to take it.
PROTHERO: Looking for the kind of job security that has become elusive in the auto industry, Kim Hatfield enrolled in Ivy Tech's medical assistant program. She and many of her peers haven't set foot in a classroom since high school. For some, like Danny Spaulding, that's a 30-year hiatus. Spaulding is heading back to school because he's grown tired of the ups and downs of the auto industry.
Mr. DANNY SPAULDING (Student, Ivy Tech): I've known it's been a roller coaster ride in the auto industry for 20-some years. It just seemed like right now we're on a straight down path.
PROTHERO: Former autoworkers like Hatfield and Spaulding are exactly who Indiana unemployment officials want to see. Spokesman Marc Lotter says one of the chief challenges is combating the mindset that manufacturing jobs will always exist in places like Kokomo.
Mr. MARC LOTTER (Spokesman, Indiana Department of Workforce Development): They believe, My job will come back. It has many times before over the past many years. We need to start people thinking, Maybe it's time for me to look to something different.
PROTHERO: And Lotter says the Trade Adjustment Assistance program is expanding to accommodate an increasing number of workers looking for a new career.
Mr. LOTTER: And, in fact, the stimulus bill contains another expansion of TAA, which we're still working with the U.S. Department of Labor to get the rules and the guidelines for what all that entails.
PROTHERO: Kim Hatfield and Danny Spaulding say they're torn, though, between embracing a new path or going back someday to build Chryslers. Both opted not to take a buyout, which means there's a possibility they could be called back to work if orders pick up.
But there's a catch: If they do go back to work, they'll lose their TAA funding and won't be able to afford tuition. If they leave Chrysler, they give up their medical coverage. It's a dicey trade-off, and although Hatfield says she, too, wants a change from the roller coaster ride of the auto industry, the lure of Chrysler health benefits remains strong.
Ms. HATFIELD: It's just not knowing what's going to happen, and, like, your kids need insurance. I don't know. It's a lot to worry about, so now you figure out that you've got to let a lot of that go, because there's just nothing you can do. But this is a step, you know, in a direction where maybe I can get out of that.
PROTHERO: Kim Hatfield still regularly attends her union meetings for news on Chrysler. But until she hears differently, she'll stick to the books.
For NPR News, I'm Arianna Prothero.
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