WESTERLY — With little work experience to speak of, Isabel Pabon was unsure of what to do after graduating from high school as part of the class of 2016.
The Coventry resident, whose time in the working world had been limited to a job at McDonald’s, decided to take the advice of relatives and applied for a job at Electric Boat. The submarine manufacturer sent her to the Westerly Education Center for training, and she soon started a full-time job as a pipefitter at the company’s Quonset Point shipyard.
Pabon said the training offered at the center was a big help.
“I’m 19 years old. It isn’t easy to apply for a job without a lot of experience, especially one with good pay where the work is constantly flowing,” Pabon said during a recent interview.
Pabon is one of more than 1,000 people who have received training or took a college course for credit at the center, which marked its first year of operation on Tuesday. It was a year, said the center’s director, Amy Grzybowski, of some trial and error but mostly growth and goal attainment.
“Westerly Education Center enjoyed phenomenal success during our first 12 months, and we have set the bar even higher for next year. Our focus for 2018 will be the launch of the process technologist training program, as well as identifying and providing solutions for under-served workforce development and training needs. We’re a highly motivated team, driven by our desire to improve the educational training and job opportunities of our community,” Grzybowski said.
The center, which cost $5.1 million to build, has a pronounced emphasis on workforce development and is part of the state Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner. The office’s other institutions, the University of Rhode Island, Community College of Rhode Island, and Rhode Island College, all offered programming at the center in its first year. CCRI, which developed the training curriculum in collaboration with Electric Boat, recently created a new full-time coordinator position for the center, and Rhode Island College plans a similar part-time position, Grzybowski said. With Electric Boat serving as an anchor, the center’s other tenants are deliberately diverse.
“We’ve created a strong base not just on the Electric Boat side, knowing that will ebb and flow,” Grzybowski said. “I think our success and growth is allowing us to offer different opportunities.”
In addition to the state public secondary education institutions, the Rhode Island School of Design and Roger Williams University offer classes at the center. Local businesses, including Washington Trust Co., quickly became regular users of rental space the center has available for employers to conduct training and seminars. Westerly Hospital has also conducted worker training at the center.
The center also hosted a Rhode Island College STEAM Center event in October. More than 120 people attended the event, aimed at helping develop greater appreciation for the environment through understanding of science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics. Two similar events are planned for the new year.
“One of our biggest achievements was becoming fully self-sustaining,” Grzybowski said, explaining that rental income is paying for the center’s utility costs as well as its staff of five full-time and four part-time employees.
The center received an outstanding smart growth project award from Grow Smart Rhode Island and a Workforce System Innovation Award from the Governor’s Workforce Board in June, and recently learned that it was receiving an Excellence in Plan Implementation award from the Rhode Island Association of Planning.
Work to create science, chemistry, and process technician laboratories is expected to begin on the center’s second floor in a few weeks. The labs will be filled with participants in a pre-employment boot camp for potential positions at 11 employers, including Pfizer, Thielsch Engineering, Amgen, the Roger Williams Medical Center, Toray Plastics, Rhodes Pharmaceuticals, Grey Sail Brewing, and Kenyon Industries. The program will train workers for five types of positions.
The program will be underwritten by a $394,000 Real Jobs Rhode Island grant. Real Jobs Rhode Island is a workforce development initiative developed by Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration. The participating employers have committed to making presentations, offering tours of their facilities, and interviewing candidates for potential jobs when they complete the training.
A different Real Jobs program will offer training in how to become a bank teller — a need communicated to the center by banks in the region, Grzybowski said.
One of the center’s overarching objectives, which informs much of its programming, is to work in line with Raimondo’s goal to ensure that 70 percent of the state’s adults attain at least an associate’s degree by 2025.
Also on tap for the new year is a Roger Williams University pathway program for people in a GED program. The program will offer participants an opportunity to take an introductory computer and cybersecurity class. The university will also help participants with job placement. Additionally, Rhode Island College plans to offer free workshops on résumé writing, job readiness and finding a career.
As the center progresses, Grzybowski said she and her staff are listening to the needs of the community and trying to offer programs in response. She is developing a work-based learning and job-pathway program for area high school students. If it comes to fruition, the program will offer students an opportunity to learn maritime sheet-metal skills in the Electric Boat program. Upon graduation from high school, students who successfully complete the program would be given jobs at the submarine manufacturer.
“It’s a really unique opportunity, because not only will the high school students have a trade, but when they graduate high school they will have a job and they’ll be getting life experience in the program,” Grzybowski said.
Pabon said her experience at the center could be life-changing.
“I think I could be employed at Electric Boat for a while and maybe even retire here,” she said.