Getting laid off might have been the best thing that ever happened to Penny Pfister.
It wasn't easy leaving retail work after 11 years, the 33-year-old Sykesville resident said. But the layoff put her on the road to a career she loves -- driving an 18-wheel tanker truck for DSI Transport in Baltimore.
"It was a tough time, a rough time for me," said Ms. Pfister, one of 10 people honored last week with the Award for Excellence from the Mid-Maryland Private Industry Council (PIC). Those honored by the council -- a partnership between Howard and Carroll county governments and business leaders -- were Job Training Partnership Administration (JTPA) clients who were successful in spite of severe obstacles, PIC members said.
Ms. Pfister, a graduate of Glenelg High School, worked at Hechinger until 1982, when she left to take a warehouse job with the Hecht Co. home delivery program.
"I was getting nowhere fast," she said. "People in retail are good at what they do -- they like to help people -- but it wasn't me."
Three weeks later, the company restructured. Ms. Pfister lost her job.
"I was devastated," she said. "I wasn't ready for that. After 11 years, I was laid off for no reason."
Encouraged by her former boyfriend -- a truck driver for Hechinger -- Ms. Pfister attended a JTPA career workshop and decided to learn how to drive the big rigs.
Together, they checked out driving schools and decided she should attend the New England Tractor Trailer Training School in Baltimore.
But when their relationship ended, Ms. Pfister found herself again questioning her direction.
"I thought, 'Maybe I'm just doing this for him.' I had been thinking that we would run the roads together, then all that changed.
"Then, I decided that I would keep going to school and do my best. If I was doing it just for him, I'd get bored and drop out. But then I realized it was what I wanted to do and stuck with it."
After her five-month course at the training school ended in February, Ms. Pfister started carting titanium dioxide -- a liquid, clay product used in paper and paint -- up and down the East Coast.
Her trips usually are no longer than overnight, and she often drives alone, she said. On the rare occasions she must be out for three or four days, Ms. Pfister teams with another trucker for the drive.
"I prefer being by myself," Ms. Pfister said. "I like being responsible for myself. I like to go and get the job done and come back."
That schedule, although erratic, also allows her to remain close to family members, most of whom live in the Baltimore metropolitan area.
"The most confusing thing is not knowing what I'm doing when," she said. "I don't know if I'm going to be running tomorrow or have the day off.
"But I didn't want to go over the roads. I like being close to home, close to my family."
Ms. Pfister said she received financial and emotional support from JTPA and her family. JTPA's Non-Traditional Employment for Women program paid more than half of her $4,595 tuition at the truck driving school, and her grandmother provided the rest.
"My family has been real supportive," Ms. Pfister said. "I didn't know where my interests were and JTPA helped with that.
"I'm so thankful that someone could help me. Without their help, I wouldn't be here. I'd probably be at home with my parents, sucking my thumb, wondering what to do now."
Other Carroll County recipients of Awards for Excellence are:
* Jessica Armiger, a student in Carroll Community College's nursing program due to graduate next spring.
After beginning school in fall 1991, she discovered she was pregnant, and the father was not financially or emotionally supportive. Ms. Armiger continued with her schooling, returning to classes one week after her son Ellis was born.
* Candace Ballentine, a phlebotomist and medical office assistant at Lab Care, who moved to Carroll from North Carolina in June 1993.
A single mother, Ms. Ballentine was unable to find work in the Baltimore area before arriving here. She had to sign up for Aid to Families with Dependent Children and found her current job through JTPA's Project Independence.
* Grant Gursky, who was laid off when his middle-management position was phased out of the company where he had worked for 17 years.
While unemployed, Mr. Gursky used the resume and cover letter services at JTPA. He started the Evening Job Club at Carroll Community College, a networking group for laid-off white-collar workers.
* Cindy Harris, a former upholstery worker who is now a phlebotomist and medical assistant in a Frederick County medical lab.
Ms. Harris, who was laid off after 17 years, graduated from the Medix School with a 3.7 grade point average and found her current job through JTPA.
* Joshua Mills, a member of the Maryland's Tomorrow program, brought his high school grade point average up from 1.6 his freshman year to a 3.8 when he graduated.
Mr. Mills, who is a management trainee at Hi-Gear, also completed the machine technology program at the Carroll County Career and Technology Center.
Howard County honorees are:
* Jerry Ashby, a telecommunications employee who found his skills were outdated when he was laid off.
Mr. Ashby, who was diagnosed with dyslexia after having difficulty with a tractor-trailer training course at Cecil Community College, began training in heating and air conditioning at RETS technical school and will graduate in May.
* Ginamarie Best, who had no credits toward high school and a child at the age of 18. She had dropped out of school after completing the seventh grade to "hang out."
Ms. Best is scheduled to graduate in August 1995, having completed all of her credits in two years. She intends to attend college and major in accounting or business administration.
* Rhonda Crawford, a Towson State University graduate with a )) finance degree who lost her job in a Baltimore-area bank when her son's asthmatic condition required daily trips to the hospital.
A single mother, she left an abusive relationship and went to live at the Howard County Domestic Violence Center with her twin sons, where she was diagnosed with dyslexia and a memory disorder.
She completed associate of arts degrees at Howard Community College in accounting, office automation and executive secretary studies. She expects to take the certified public accountant exam in November.
* Albert Montagna, who entered the Maryland's Tomorrow program with a 1.67 grade point average.
He graduated from Atholton High School with a 3.66 GPA and is majoring in business administration at Towson State University.
The Medix School and NWI Training Services each received recognition as service providers that had helped the JTPA and PIC programs.
The Employer of the Year award went to Jos. A. Bank in Hampstead for the tours, interviews and job offers it has given JTPA clients.