With layoffs starting, International Paper employees are looking at options to improve their career opportunities.

Local 193 President Ronnie Hunt, who heads one of three United Steelworkers divisions at the mill, said the Courtland paper mill was expected to lay off 27 people last week.

That’s less than 5 percent of the mill’s 1,100 employees.

Layoffs are expected to pick up as the mill heads toward an early spring shutdown.

IP spokeswoman Laura Gipson said about 300 employees have interviewed for positions elsewhere within the company.

The company, based in Memphis, is working on setting up site visits. Gipson said most are looking at plants in the South, including the Alabama plants in Decatur, Selma, Pine Hill and Prattville.

Alabama Department of Postsecondary Education Chancellor Mark Heinrich authorized Northwest-Shoals and Calhoun community colleges last week to offer half-price tuition for laid-off IP employees who do not qualify for the Workforce Investment Act or any other federal assistance.

Gipson said the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service provided assistance with resume building and interview coaching.

The Alabama Career Center System in Sheffield and the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affair’s rapid response ream is conducting on-site workshops on the state benefits for dislocated workers.

Workers are also getting help from the University of North Alabama and JP Morgan on financial and retirement planning.

Gipson said 660 employees attended a two-day job fair in November that featured 30 employers at Courtland Baptist Church.

Bethany Clem-Shockney, dean of business, technologies and workforce development at Calhoun, said most IP employees won’t be eligible for federal assistance because they make more than $30,000 a year.

Tuition and fees at Calhoun is $140 per credit hour, or $420 per three-hour class. A full load of 12 hours per semester costs $1,680.

Northwest Shoals’ tuition and fees is $138 per credit hour, or $414 per three-hour class. A full load of 12 hours per semester costs $1,656.

Laid-off IP employees can get a 50 percent discount for two consecutive years from the date they lose their job.

Clem-Shockney expects a majority of laid-off IP employees who attend college to pick a major or a class that’s similar to what they’ve done at the mill, and that most will go into a technical field. The college gives credit for work experience in some areas.

“A small percentage will say, ‘I’ve always wanted to do whatever,’ and take this as an opportunity to go back to school,” Clem-Shockney said.

Clem-Shockney said the quickest route from college to employment is a nine-credit-hours certification in the emergency medical services.

Most certifications required 25 credit hours, so it takes two to three semesters to complete.

Clem-Shockney said there several financial aid options are available for these workers. They can apply for Pell Grants, student loans and scholarships.

“Scholarship applications are open now,” Clem-Shockney said. “There are several benefactors looking for adult students, especially first-generation students, for their scholarships.”

Bayne Hughes can be reached at 256-340-2432.

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