Lifetime achievers

Working adults forge brighter futures in the classroom

Biomedical science students considering the placement of the organs of the digestive system on their mannequin.

Beginning in 2008, the American economy suffered the biggest downturn since the Great Depression: stocks plummeted, jobs were lost and unemployment peaked at 10 percent.

For many college graduates during the Great Recession, this meant staying in school – deferring those student loans and gaining classroom experience in the form of MBAs, Ph.D.s and other advanced degrees.

For many working adults, it meant losing their livelihood through downsizing and layoffs as their employers tried to stay afloat.

Fast forward nine years and those effects are still being felt.

Today, unemployment levels are below 5 percent, but those same working adults now find themselves competing in the workforce with millennial and generation X employees who have fresh degrees and knowledge that give them an automatic edge.

A study by Georgetown University projected that between the years of 2008 and 2018, Wisconsin will have a total of 925,000 job vacancies between new job creation and retirement.

According to the study, nearly 560,000 of those jobs will require postsecondary credentials. Wisconsin educational institutions are meeting the need with programs specifically designed for busy, working adults.

Back to the workforce


Karen Eisenberger earned her associate degree in hospitality management from Waukesha County Technical College some 20 years ago, and worked in travel and hospitality before stepping back from her career to raise her family. 

As her three children got older, Eisenberger began to think about going back to work.

“I think I wanted more choices,” she said. “I wanted to do something more, gain those skills I needed.”

Eisenberger enrolled in Milwaukee-based Alverno College’s AA to BA program in 2014. The school’s accelerated, flexible structure was appealing to her.

“Even though the workload was quite extensive, the one week in class, one week online timetable was appealing,” she said. “I knew I didn’t want entirely online; I needed that classroom interaction.”

When she started, all of her children were still at home. Eisenberger relied heavily on family support to help her achieve her goal, but the flexible schedule offered at Alverno made it a lot easier.

Eisenberger graduated in May – 18 months after enrolling. She also earned a job at FIS.

She is not quite finished, though; Eisenberger will earn her MBA from Alverno in two years.

“I didn’t want to come to a door – a job or career I wanted – and have that door shut because I didn’t have the education,” she said.

Long-term, Eisenberger is still deciding what she wants to do. Right now, she knows her education won’t be the reason she can’t achieve her goals.

Beyond the assembly line


For seven years, Patrick Steinke worked on the operating floor for Marathon-based Marathon Cheese Corp. While he didn’t mind it, his days were repetitive and his options limited. He ultimately decided he wanted more.

Steinke spoke with the maintenance crew at Marathon because he thought the work they did might be a good fit for him. As a teen, Steinke loved working with his hands; he loved taking things apart, putting things back together and repairing small tools and engines in his parents’ garage. He learned that he would need more advanced training to make a move.

In August 2015, Steinke enrolled in Northcentral Technical College’s electromechanical technology associate degree program.

Shortly after, a position for an electromechanical technician opened up at Marathon Cheese. Despite having just enrolled in the NTC degree program, Steinke applied for the position.

With retention in mind, company leaders hired Steinke for the position under the condition he’d sign a contract agreeing to finish his degree and remain with the company for a certain period of time.

For more than a year now, Steinke has been a part of the third shift maintenance team at Marathon Cheese while attending school – now full-time, during the day.

“It’s been great to have instructors to learn from and ask questions about real-life things I encounter on the job,” Steinke said.

He noted that he has been able to take the skills he learns during the day and directly apply them to his work at Marathon Cheese.

The depth and breadth of knowledge of the NTC instructors, all former field professionals, has been invaluable.

“They understand the work environment and know that things aren’t always perfect. What they teach me, I can take right to work and apply – which is nice.”

The new position comes with incremental pay increases and a lot more responsibility, which Steinke doesn’t mind. He plans to finish his degree next year.

Recession recovery plan


Karen Nelson was earning six figures as a human resources professional at Shaw Industries Group Inc. in Dalton, Georgia. When the recession hit in 2009, she found herself one of thousands being laid off from the hard-hit company.

For the next six years, Nelson found herself fluctuating between unemployed and grossly underemployed.

“I was at my wit’s end,” Nelson said. “It was extremely difficult.”

Nelson grew up in an educated, middle-class family. She never wanted for anything, she said.

As a working professional, she had always been able to leave a job and find another within weeks. During the recession, it was different. Weeks turned into months and months turned into years.

“What I heard with some consistency was, ‘If you only had a master’s degree,’” she said.

Nelson applied for hundreds of jobs without success; eventually, she lost her home and moved back to Wisconsin.

“As I was struggling with unemployment, those graduating college were earning their master’s degrees,” she said. “They got a leg up on me, and that’s when it hit me square in the face.”

Her severance and savings exhausted, Nelson completed a year of service with AmeriCorps in 2015, earning a $5,500 educational grant. She decided to go back to school.

That September, Nelson began the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s 17-month EMBA program. She completed her degree in December 2016.

Today, Nelson is a successful consultant who serves as a chief diversity officer on a contract basis. Her clients include Spectrum Brands Holdings Inc., Molina Healthcare, Milwaukee Public Schools, Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc. and others. 

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