KINGSPORT — Two years ago this month, Michael Vaughn was laid off from Quebecor World after working 30 years as a machine operator at the plant.
At 47, Vaughn faced an uncertain future, with no education and no job prospects.
“It was scary,” Vaughn said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought I was going to lose everything I had.”
In 1977, Vaughn was a high school dropout when he landed a job at the Kingsport Press, which later became Arcata Graphics and then Quebecor.
“Back then you didn’t need no education. Didn’t matter,” Vaughn said.
A few years ago, the book manufacturer started to downscale operations, announcing a series of layoffs that ultimately led to the plant’s closure in late 2006. Vaughn was among those laid off in September 2006.
He visited the Tennessee Career Center on Center Street in Kingsport, expecting to be told where to find a low-skilled, low-paying job.
He was wrong. Vaughn was advised to attend adult education classes to get his GED as a first step. Education, he soon learned, had become an integral part in preparing for today’s job market.
“It’s everything now,” he said. “People won’t even acknowledge you unless you’ve got that piece of paper now.”
He completed his GED earlier this year, and on May 1 started a 20-month course at the Tennessee Technology Center in Elizabethton to become a master technician in the heating and cooling industry. His son, Frank, is attending the same course, and together father and son hope to eventually open their own heating and cooling business.
“I’ve always wanted to work for myself,” said Vaughn, now 49. “I’m in my last stretch. So I’m going for it. I believe I can do it.”
Steve Vinsant, manager of the Tennessee Career Center in Kingsport, said he’s seeing more and more older workers like Vaughn who need to upgrade their education and skill levels.
“Rather than directing students just out of high school into careers, we are seeing adults coming back into the system to receive assistance in becoming competitive with those students who are graduating now,” Vinsant said.
He said older workers are often discouraged “because they feel like they don’t have anything to offer.”
“But the thing about it is — they’re the ones with those soft skills. They come to work on time. There’s not an attendance issue. They’re trustworthy, loyal. But it’s their skills that have become antiquated,” Vinsant said.
“It’s not their age — it’s their skills.”
The Career Center, formerly the unemployment claims office, now is strictly a job service center designed to connect job seekers with employers needing workers. If candidates lack education, the center directs them to adult education, or vocational or technical training through the Alliance for Business and Training.
The center also works with local employers to help make sure their existing employees receive the necessary training and certifications.
Just last month, the Career Center in Kingsport worked with 1,900 people who were either seeking employment or additional training and certifications.
Some of those folks are former AGC plant employees who were laid off earlier this year. Others are hoping to make a career change. And others are looking to upgrade their skills.
Vinsant said some need basic computer education. He noted that many employers today are looking for workers with more technical skills. For instance, LeClerc, a Canada-based bakery that plans to open in the Northeast Tennessee Business Park this year, will soon be looking for job candidates with such skills.
“That’s where we are headed,” Vinsant said.
For employees with the right skills, jobs are available. Vinsant said the Career Center currently has 60 to 65 job orders from local employers.
But for some workers who’ve just been laid off, the thought of learning new skills can be intimidating.
“There are a lot of hands to help move that individual from that scary situation back into the work force. The amount of courage it takes to do that is just amazing,” Vinsant said.
He said Michael Vaughn is one of the success stories.
“He’s done it. And we’re all so proud of him,” he said.