ELKHART, Ind. -- Donna Sharp made a good living even without a high school diploma, earning about $19 an hour putting stripes on recreational vehicles in a northern Indiana county known as the RV capital of the world.
Then Monaco Coach Corp. announced in July that it was closing the Wakarusa plant where Sharp worked, as well as plants in Elkhart and Nappanee in September. Other RV companies were doing the same, contributing to an estimated 8,000 job cuts that have caused Elkhart County's unemployment rate to triple in a year to 15.3 percent.
In that bleak market, Sharp, 44, found that her lack of a diploma limited her prospects. So she scrapped her job search to sign up for classes to earn General Education Development credentials, joining a nationwide crush that is creating lengthy backlogs for people desperate to acquire tools to help them find work.
"We've never had waiting lists like this, ever," said Deborah Weaver, director of community education for Elkhart Community Schools.
David C. Harvey, president of ProLiteracy, a nonprofit literacy organization with 1,200 affiliates, said agencies that help people study for GEDs and other adult education classes are being deluged at a time when many are facing cuts in state funding and dwindling donations.
"This is quickly becoming a national crisis," he said. "Our programs have gotten hit with less resources, but in turn they have a huge increase in demand for services that they can't meet."
Weaver has seen that demand in Elkhart, where the school system in past years ran a monthly orientation to enroll people for GED classes. She stopped holding orientations in August because all available slots were filled and more than 100 people were on the waiting list, even though she had added three classes.
When the orientations resumed, 139 people showed up in late January for 100 spots, and Weaver said the phones ring daily with people hoping to sign up.
In New York City, the Fifth Avenue Committee, which runs a GED class for 22 students, usually has a waiting list of about 50 people. It now has 178 waiting to get into class.
Chris Curran, the committee's director of adult education and literacy, said normally she would refer people to GED classes at other agencies, but those sites also are full.
"Everyone has a waiting list right now," she said. "We're starting to tell people we might not have any openings until September."
In California, where the 9.3 percent unemployment rate is a 15-year high, the number of people taking the GED has increased from 46,184 in 2005 to 59,416 in 2008. Nancy Goodrich, an education programs consultant with the California Education Department, said the state saw a 14 percent increase in people taking the test last year alone.
"It's primarily for economic reasons," she said.
Weaver said those signing up for GED classes include the unemployed and those who fear they'll soon join them.
"A lot of folks are realizing their jobs may not stay there and they need their GED," she said.
Sharp had never expected to need one. She planned to work at Monaco until she retired.
"I loved what I was doing, and I was good at it," she said.
Monaco's layoffs came amid a massive loss of RV industry jobs that left Elkhart County with the biggest annual gain in unemployment rate in metropolitan areas in December. Some estimate the area's jobless rate is now closer to 20 percent, prompting President Barack Obama to visit to press his massive economic recovery bill.
Sharp was so upset when she lost her job that she broke out in hives, couldn't stop crying and had trouble getting out of bed. She was diagnosed with depression.
"I was a wreck. It was like someone took part of my life away," she said.
She decided to get her GED so she could participate in a state program that allows displaced workers to receive up to $6,000 to put toward an associate degree or industry-recognized certificate in a program connected to high-need occupations.
She was on the waiting list for nearly six weeks before getting a spot in a GED class. She hopes to earn the high school equivalency degree in May, then begin talking classes at Ivy Tech Community College to become a certified nursing assistant.
Such jobs pay about $10 to $12 an hour - far less than her Monaco pay. Still, she's thankful to have the chance to earn a living again.
"I'll be contributing to paying our bills and I'll be helping people," Sharp said.
Harvey said other people who have lost their jobs need similar opportunities. He estimates the federal government needs to spend about $100 million on adult basic education and literacy programs so people like Sharp will be trained and ready to work when the economy rebounds.
"These people deserve a chance," he said.
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