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Dislocated worker on road to new career

Declining economic conditions typically change the face of student populations on college campuses as individuals who become unemployed after years in the workforce turn to community and technical colleges to update their skills and retrain.

Tom Wegner is one of many new faces on campus, where state and federal funding programs are making it possible for him to prepare for a new career in nursing.

Tom Wegner joined the student body at Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus Falls last fall. He is often mistaken as an instructor by fellow students until they get to know him.

At 50-plus years of age, he brings a great deal of life experience to campus.

Wegner was coordinating international shipping for a manufacturer in Shakopee when competition from overseas manufacturing led to the elimination of his warehouse job.

He began looking outside the Twin Cities for career options and, since his parents had retired and moved to the lake country near Vining, it made sense for Wegner to be near them.

Wegner relocated and found employment in Wadena.

He became a dislocated worker last summer when he lost his full-time job there. Now he's completed one year of college and is in the middle of his coursework in the Generic Registered Nursing (RN) program.

Funding through Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program (CEP), a federal Pell grant and work study are helping Wegner pursue a new career.

"You can work out of any CEP office to go back to college wherever you prefer," Wegner said.

Wegner is working with Susan Swanson out of the Alexandria CEP office.

"She is very supportive and resourceful," he said. "I would not be in college without the help and support of the program. It takes away a lot of the stress not to worry so much about money."

Wegner says he forgot most of the math he learned in high school, and math was still a challenge when he began at Minnesota State. But with help from M State math instructor Sharon Hintgen, he broke through the barrier, and his math skills have improved to a level that may make him a candidate for the college's honor society for math students, Mu Alpha Theta.

When he's not studying, Wegner works as a peer tutor in the college's Center for Academic Success, assisting fellow students with anatomy and physiology, biology, chemistry and other classes. He also works in the maintenance department on campus and is a Volunteer Firefighter and First Responder in Vining.

"My background sort of led me to apply for the nursing program," Wegner said. "I've already done CPR - successfully - and seen a lot of blood and broken bones. I'm also a motorcyclist and it's only a matter of time before you end up helping someone out with an injury on the street."

After finishing the program and passing the board exams, Wegner would like to work in psychiatric nursing or in emergency medicine.

About 29 percent of students attending M State at the Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls, Moorhead and Wadena campuses and online are age 25 and over. Like Wegner, some are dislocated workers enhancing their skills and preparing to enter new careers. "You will not be alone," he said.

Dislocated workers now have an opportunity to take advantage of federal funding that will pay for training to acquire new job skills.

Historically, unemployment benefits have paid only for the shortest-term educational programs, but benefits are now available for up to 72 weeks, and federal stimulus dollars have been made available to pay for books and tuition. Funds also may be available for rent, child care and heating assistance from county social service programs.

Responding to the volume of layoffs in the region, a new partnership has developed between Rural Minnesota CEP and M State to provide easier access to career and benefit information for dislocated workers.

Career and educational program information is available by contacting M State Academic Advisor Mark Nelson at (218) 846-3756 or by e-mail at

Benefit information is available from these local Rural Minnesota CEP Offices:


(serving Douglas County)

303 22nd Ave. W., Suite 107

Alexandria, MN 56308

(320) 762-7800


Detroit Lakes

(serving Becker, Mahnomen and Otter Tail counties)

801 Roosevelt Ave., P.O. Box 1108

Detroit Lakes, MN 56502-1108

(218) 846-7377


Fergus Falls

(serving Grant, Otter Tail and Wilkin counties)

125 Lincoln Ave. W., P.O. Box 161

Fergus Falls, MN 56538-0161

(218) 739-7675



(serving Clay County)

Family Service Center

715 North 11th Street

Moorhead, MN 56560

(218) 287-5060



(serving Todd and Wadena counties)

124 First Street NE, Suite 3

Wadena, MN 56482

(218) 631-7660