Don Gross, Blackhawk Technical College
Just two years ago, U.S. Navy veteran Don Gross had hit a very low point in his life through the loss of his job, home, car and marriage. Now, thanks to help from Blackhawk Technical College and the Rock Valley Community Programs, he is turning his life around.
Don enlisted in the navy right out of high school. Since it was during the Post-Vietnam Era with relatively few military conflicts, he never saw combat. Instead, he served as an electrician on surface vessels for three years. Once he completed his service, he returned home to Illinois and received an associate’s degree from Highland Community College in Freeport.
That led Don to a 20 year career in industrial maintenance, working for various companies, including a steel foundry and a hospital. His career was going well for him until his 2006 lay off from a printing company that was going bankrupt. After that, he did a short stint at a dairy equipment manufacturer until a 2007 layoff, and then was unable to find full-time employment.
Don worked at several part-time jobs, but they could not sustain him. That’s when substance abuse became a problem, and he found himself homeless.
Fortunately, he was never on the streets, thanks to “a transitional housing program called Housing 4 Our Vets, located south of Janesville, Wisc.,” operated by the nonprofit Rock Valley Community Programs, according to a Feb. 16, 2014 article in the Janesville GazetteXtra. That allowed him to focus on getting back on his feet, Don told the GazetteXtra.
Another stroke of luck was that Blackhawk Technical College was within walking distance of Housing 4 Our Vets, which made it convenient for Don to enroll in the year-long Industrial Mechanic program. He started in January 2013 and graduated in December. Don found that the program allowed him to brush up on some skills he already had and pick up some new ones. “I was in the right place at the right time,” he explained.
The icing on the cake for Don was that he had a new job lined up before he graduated from Blackhawk. It was for a maintenance position with Snak King, located in Freeport, Ill., which allowed him to move back to the area where he had grown up. After six weeks as a temporary employee at the beginning of this year, Don was hired by the company for a full-time position.
Don credits the Blackhawk College program with helping him feel more confident and marketable about getting back into the industrial trades. He also noted that within a few weeks on his new job, he used some of the new skills he had learned at Blackhawk.
He’s excited about his field and says, “The nice thing about maintenance is no matter what the industry, everyone needs something fixed,” Don explained. “It is not economy driven. As one industry fades away, another one ramps up. I like the challenge and variety [of maintenance work].” Don sees several ways in which his career could develop. He is interested in keeping up with new technology and helping to mentor younger people. Down the road, that could lead him to management or teaching.
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