By Ellie French/VTDigger
For 30 years, Susan Stoutes worked for Tuttle Printing and Engraving in Rutland. But in March, along with thousands of other Vermonters, she was laid off as the pandemic hammered businesses across the state.
Armed with an art degree from the 1970s and 40 hours a week of newly found free time, Stoutes decided she didn’t want to let the layoff get the best of her. So she enrolled in two community college classes, in hopes of landing a promotion at her part-time job at Home Depot.
“I didn’t feel like my skills from 20 years ago when I was a supervisor were probably going to work in today’s workplace,” she laughed.
Hundreds of other Vermonters are doing the same thing. In October, the state announced that anyone could enroll in a free class from one of the Vermont State Colleges, offered with the help of federal CARES Act money that will run out at the end of the year.
So far, nearly 1,000 Vermonters have signed up. More than 140 courses are available, ranging from broad topics like leadership and communication to specific skills like early childhood education and manufacturing.
Sheena Bourque, a mother of six who lives in the Upper Valley, decided to earn a medical assistant certificate. Before the pandemic, Bourque was a stay-at-home mom. She had tried to get her certification 10 years ago, but wasn’t able to follow through.
“I wanted to do it, but I never really took the time and effort to put into it,” she said. “But I decided that with the pandemic, with all this stuff being online, and all the kids home, it would be really beneficial for me to take the time and try to do some schooling online.”
Once she gets her certificate, Bourque said, she has an internship lined up at a local hospital.
“And after that, my plan is to get a job in the medical field,” she said. “And do whatever I can to help — not just during the pandemic, but hopefully once it’s over as well.”
At the Community College of Vermont, where most of the students are concentrated, the most popular classes are in business, courses related to health care, website development and computer applications, according to school officials.
Fern Fryer, who teaches business classes at Community College of Vermont, said she saw a “huge influx” of students in her one-credit self-paced classes this semester. She said the community college has always had a wide range of learners, from retirees to high school students, but during the pandemic, her students come to CCV with more focused goals.
“People who got furloughed or lost their jobs are definitely more likely to be studying business or leadership than human services or liberal arts,” Fryer said.
The classes she teaches, which feature critical thinking and creative problem solving, have been particularly valuable during the pandemic.
“At any time, I feel education is transformative,” Fryer said. “But in this time, I know people have lost their jobs and are struggling with the situation, and the classes I’m teaching speak exactly to the life skills that people are trying to add to their toolbelt at this time.”
Stoutes said she picked out two courses when CCV’s offerings came out: Personal and Professional Effectiveness and Leadership and Collaboration.
“At first it was pretty different,” she said. “I even had to go out and get myself a computer.”
She said it was hard learning CCV’s different modules and grading systems, but with the help of two of her children, who are in college themselves, she eventually figured it out.
The two biggest takeaways for Stoutes: how to listen and how to learn from failure. Both skills will come in handy if she moves up the ladder, she said.
“I know I’m late in my career life, but this has gotten me very inspired,” she said. “I feel like I could keep going. I’ve got my bachelor’s already. Maybe I’ll get my master’s.”