Jeremy Mitchell, left, at his 2019 graduation from the Central Maine Community College electromechanical technology program. Two of his peers, Chuck Smith, next to Mitchell, and Joe Martineau, far right, were also laid off from the Androscoggin Mill. Abby Fogg, next to Martineau, quickly joined the mill-worker study group for their seriousness and dedication to completing their program. Photo Courtesy of Jeremy Mitchell

REGION — Livermore Falls resident Jeremy Mitchell was no stranger to layoffs when he was included in one of Verso Corporation’s 2017 round of job cuts at the Androscoggin Paper Mill in Jay.

“I went from being laid off in Rumford then getting hired in Jay where I thought I would be safer and then getting laid off again,” Mitchell said recently during a Zoom interview.

Following his layoff at the paper mill in Rumford, Mitchell worked the night shift at Irving Lumber as he struggled to find a job in the area offering comparable pay to the mill. After bearing a significant pay cut for a year while his three kids were still young, he reluctantly decided that he would return to construction work despite the arduous schedule.

“A lot of times construction entails traveling and the same thing, getting laid off,” he said.

Just as Mitchell was preparing to reenter a field with a work schedule that was incompatible with raising a young family, the Jay paper mill called Mitchell for an interview.

He then spent the next 14 years working 12-hour shifts, rotating days and nights for three-day stretches following three days off, as a drying machine operator on paper machine one.

“I lived in the place…I did all kinds of other things, lockouts, safety trainings,” Mitchell said. “I made good money, but I paid for it because I lived in that place all my days off, working overtime; just the shift work, it’s really hard on your body, on your family.”

There were always opportunities for overtime Mitchell said, as Verso would run the mill with minimal staff and did not emphasize training with all employees. Often, Mitchell could pick up extra hours because he was the only employee available with the knowledge for that particular job.

In Mitchell’s last year at the mill, paper machines one and two were shut down as Verso downsized its production and workforce. He was moved to paper machine three which already had a seasoned crew and operators.

“So when I went over to three there were already people that did the stuff that I did. They did utilize me some, but it just wasn’t the same,” Mitchell said. “I went from top to bottom real quick.”

During Mitchell’s time as an operator, he kept his work interesting by conducting trainings and lockouts which are procedures that ensure the safety of employees during maintenance by shutting down machines. When he transferred to machine three, the lack of engaging work started to drag on him.

“There were some times when I just thought, I’d love to get out of this place,” Mitchell said.

In October of 2017 that wish came true when Mitchell learned that he would be one of 190 workers laid off in the coming months as paper machine three was destined to be permanently shut down.

Mitchell’s first reaction to the news was sheer uncertainty, but he had a strong conviction that it was time for something new.

“Of course at first, you don’t know what to do…I knew life was going to change, but I knew I didn’t want to go back to a mill…I had already been laid off twice from two different mills,” he said.

Fortunately, Mitchell had some role models as previous coworkers who had been included in Verso’s 300-job cut in 2015 had taken advantage of the Trade Act, a federal program that supports displaced workers through education and training in related fields.

Despite knowing people who had completed two-year college programs following their layoff at the mill, Mitchell was nervous and full of self-doubt.

As he worked out his last months on a soon-to-be out of service machine he thought, “How the hell am I going to go to college for two years and make no money? And at my age, how am I going to go to college? Can I do it?”

Mitchell had never attended college before and he was worried about his skill-level in geometry, trigonometry and algebra while he looked over the course requirements for the electromechanical technology program at Central Maine Community College (CMCC) in Auburn.

To better prepare himself, Mitchell joined a cohort of laid off mill workers at Spruce Mountain Adult Education in Livermore Falls where he spent about six months in the college transitions program. Mitchell stressed that those who helped him brush up on general requirement courses, Michelle Guillame and Betsey Bremmer, played a pivotal role in his success at CMCC.

“I can’t stress that enough…I never would have made it without them and I tell them that all of the time. What they’re doing is really good, not only for kids in the area and people who need to get their GED. I wish more people from the mill would utilize it because it’s free and they really do help you a lot,” Mitchell said.

The contacts he made at Spruce Mountain proved to be invaluable as he returned to the adult education center throughout his time at CMCC for additional tutoring.

Guillame explained in a phone interview that the college transitions program has four components, college math, college writing, a technology component and a section called college culture.

“Jeremy participated in the whole program. Students come in and sometimes they do a menu option if they feel very confident as writers or if they’ve had some college before but they’re not so sure of the technology and/or the culture piece which within that component we do financial aid,” Guillame said.

“We have area partners that students meet with, we do college tours, we help them prepare a resume, we have guest speakers come in and talk about vocabulary like what does matriculate mean? What does it mean to be a part-time student versus a full-time student? Etc,” she explained.

Guillame has been with Spruce Mountain since 2012 and has helped several groups of displaced mill workers as they navigate a very disorienting moment in life.

“It’s very psychological…to devote so many years to one job and all of a sudden it’s not there,” she said. “And there are options but it’s very difficult to wrap your head around what can I do now? And what do I want to do? We do a lot of career exploration and then we make a plan.”

Going through the college transitions program also allowed Mitchell to develop relationships with people who were coming from the same place as him and about to spend the next two years as non-traditional students. By the first week of classes, Mitchell could be found in the front row with three of his friends from the Androscoggin Mill.

Mitchell also had some initial social anxiety that first week as he was primarily surrounded by students more than twenty years younger than himself.

“I wasn’t sure how they were going to take us,” Mitchell said. “Some of them would see that we had everything to lose…we had a lot to lose, we were there for a reason and people would see that, see that we tried and worked real hard. People would work with us and ask us questions.”

The CMCC mill worker cohort even absorbed a young student who was eager to join their serious study group and together they made it through the program.

Mitchell describes this time as a team effort not only with his peers but at home as well as his family rallied together. His middle daughter was attending Thomas College at the time and was a constant resource for Mitchell to figure out how to do a number of college-related tasks. Meanwhile, his wife continued working while Mitchell studied, a stark change from an unbearably hot, 12-hour shift at the mill.

Jeremy Mitchell with his youngest daughter, Taylor Mitchell, during his 2019 graduation from Central Maine Community College. The day was emotional for the entire family and Taylor Mitchell cried with pride for her father. Photo Courtesy of Jeremy Mitchell

“It was nice to be able to do my homework sitting out by the pool on a nice sunny day; being home more with my kids,” Mitchell said. “I turned into a little Mr. Mom. We all worked together, it was definitely a team effort.”

There was a split second during Mitchell’s time at CMCC when he considered returning to the mill after learning that Verso had momentarily started up paper machine number one again. However, with money being the sole motivator to return, he instead opted to finish his electrician program.

Now, Mitchell speaks confidently about the jobs he’s held since graduating from CMCC. He left the college feeling confident and marketable and within a year he landed a position as a meter lab technician with his goal-company, Central Maine Power (CMP).

“I make as much as I was in the mill and I’m not in there all of the time working shift work, working on my days off,” Mitchell said. “I work days all of the time, at the same time, unless there’s a storm, but we get paid time and a half.”

Mitchell said that this is the best job he’s ever had, noting that the working conditions are a considerable upgrade as well now that he’s in a climate controlled setting not having to work in the exhausting heat of the mill.

“I was very confident because I just knew that if I could make it through college, and everything I did in the mill, and my resume looked really good, I was just confident that degree was going to pay off,” Mitchell said.

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