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BLOOMINGTON - It's crunch time for many former Mitsubishi plant workers who will receive their last supplemental paycheck today but continue to search for work.

"It's just hard. Everyone wants someone with experience. It's hard to change careers if you don't have experience in that field," said Sherry Henderson, who started working at Mitsubishi Motors North America in Normal in 1993.

She was laid off in October 2004 along with nearly 1,200 co-workers. When making the layoffs, Mitsubishi offered union workers with at least five years' experience 80 percent of their pay, including benefits, for 70 weeks.

While that assistance ends today for about 500 former employees, those with 10 years or more of seniority will continue to receive health, drug, vision and hearing coverage, said Mitsubishi spokesman Dan Irvin.

That's good news for the many still struggling to find quality jobs with decent pay.

"It's crunch time now. We can't afford to be picky," Henderson said.

Others have found jobs in new professions, including manufacturing, nursing, retail, civil service, sales, truck driving and others, said Sandra Flanagan, director of the Career Link Transition Center in Bloomington.

And some landed jobs but continue to search for something better, she added.

"Something we've heard frequently is the discouragement over the $10-an-hour pay, compared to what they were making at Mitsubishi," she said.

Laid-off employee Kevin Charlier of Minonk agreed.

"The benefits of course aren't half of what we had. I realized how spoiled I've been working at Mitsubishi," said Charlier, while taking a free tutorial Thursday at the transition center.

Career Link opened offices at First State Bank, 202 N. Prospect Road, Bloomington, to help laid-off workers build resumes, write cover letters, learn interviewing skills and identify job opportunities.

A wall in the office displays the names of many former Mitsubishi employees who have found work, serving as inspiration for those still looking.

"Some day, my name is going to be on there, too," Charlier said.

The Career Link Transition Center can help, but the center closes June 30, said Flanagan. "A layoff is a disguised opportunity, but it can be an opportunity," she said.

Keith Cermak of Bloomington, for example, will earn a nursing degree in early 2007 from Illinois State University's Mennonite College of Nursing. Cermak wanted to be a nurse for a long time, but didn't have time to finish school while working second shift at Mitsubishi.

With nursing, Cermak sacrifices pay for job security. He's currently a lab technician at BroMenn Regional Medical Center.

"The job security of it and being able to work anywhere in the state is a huge advantage," Cermak said.

Others have started their own business.

David Weth of Normal began Weth Paint & Design in January 2005 after taking an entrepreneurship seminar at Career Link's other office at 207 E. Hamilton Road, Bloomington. That office remains open after June 30.

"I took (the layoff) kind of hard. I was there almost 17 years. But you land on your feet," he said. "Look beyond the money and do something you enjoy, something you're proud of. Being on my own, taking lunch breaks when I want, taking off early to watch a (Chicago) Cubs game, it's the best feeling. It's created opportunities to be with my family more."

Charlier tried opening his own business but didn't have the start-up capital. He spent the last year developing a business plan. He recently wrote his first resume in 15 years and began interviewing for a new job.

"The first thing they ask is, 'What if Mitsubishi calls back?' That closes the door for a lot of people," he said, explaining that some employers won't hire people who are hoping to get their jobs back.

But Henderson, when asked about the possibility of being rehired by Mitsubishi, replied, "We don't have a prayer."


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