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Long road back: Non-traditional student ready for next challenge

Jason Schutte displays the medal he won at the recent SKILLS competition.

As a victim of the nation's economic melt down, Jason Schutte was beginning to feel like he'd never scratch his way back into the work world.

But with his graduation from the diesel mechanic program at Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire on Friday, the New Richmond man has completed a challenging journey from unemployment to a contributing member of society again.

The journey began in the fall of 2008, when Schutte was laid off from his construction job with Halle Builders of New Richmond.

As new home construction continued to decrease, Schutte said he saw the handwriting on the wall that he soon would be unemployed.

"The Halles were more than generous in keeping me around for as long as they did," he said. "It was inevitable that I'd lose my job."

Schutte spent more than a year and a half looking for work elsewhere. But after sending out 500 resumes and securing just three job interviews during that time, Schutte said he realized his days in construction were through.

"I finally decided it was time for a change, because I'd exhausted all of my unemployment benefits," he said. "I decided to pursue a different career."

Schutte, 35, enrolled in the two-year diesel technician program in Eau Claire and commuted to school from his home in New Richmond.

He later landed a job as the night foreman and service writer at Peterbuilt in Eau Claire, but continued to attend school in an effort to complete his degree.

"We've been trying to dig ourselves out from a couple years of not working," Schutte said of his decision to both work and attend school.

Schutte's typical day began at 5:30 a.m., as he rose to get ready for school and work. He was on the road to Eau Claire by 6:30 a.m., arriving in time for his first class. After school, Schutte then would head to work.

"I'd be back home anywhere between 11 p.m. or 2:30 a.m., depending on the day," he said. "I'd get three to five hours of sleep, then I'd be back on the road."

Despite the hectic schedule, Schutte said he was able to excel at school, even though he was easily the oldest student enrolled in the class.

"My grades were really good," he said. "I impressed even myself."

"He made his family proud by getting all A's," noted his wife, Bettina.

Schutte recently took his new diesel skills on the road. He competed in the SKILLS USA competition at Wisconsin Dells in April 2011. He took first place in the contest and now is going on to nationals in Kansas City, Mo. in June.

Schutte admits the past two years have been exhausting, but he's glad he stuck with it.

"It was kind of a surreal experience the past two years," he said. "But I was able to make it through. We managed to hang on, and we were barely able to hold onto our house."

His most important motivation through the ordeal was his family, Schutte said, who provided all the support he needed to get through each day.

"I couldn't have done it without them," he said.

As graduation passed, Schutte said he's excited to have a little extra time at home with his wife, Bettina, and sons James, 8, and Hunter, 7.

"My son (James) plays baseball, but I haven't been able to see a game that he's been in," he noted. "Now I'll be able to catch some games. The boys are so excited to have me home more. They're loving it."

Schutte said he's also excited to be getting a little more sleep in the future, adding that he can't sleep too much because his "honey-do" list has grown a lot over the past couple years.

Schutte said he'll also be keeping his options open for future employment, and remains optimistic that the future is much brighter for him and his family.