WESTERLY — The state’s senior senator, a self-proclaimed promoter of small business and economic development, toured the bustling Westerly Education Center, a fast-growing hub of workforce development, Wednesday.
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, a Democrat who was first elected to the state Senate in 1984 after serving four years in the House of Representatives, marveled at the speed at which the Friendship Street facility, which opened late last year, went from concept to bricks and mortar.
“I’m very impressed as to the level of training and the great hands on experience the center provides. It’s really beyond my imagination how quickly it was built. Normally there’s years of planning and designs but this operation really seems to have hit the ground running,” said Ruggerio, who was elected to serve as senate president in March.
The center is now open from 7 a.m. to midnight five days per week and is poised to be open for three shifts should Electric Boat, the center’s anchor tenant, expand current worker training programs, said Amy Grzybowski, the center’s executive director.
Ruggerio, who was joined by state Sen. Dennis Algiere, R-Westerly, and state Rep. Sam Azzinaro, D-Westerly, observed the first floor training area occupied by Electric Boat. Algiere invited Ruggerio to visit the center.
“Sen. Ruggerio was very much a supporter of the school and a supporter of its concept and focus on workforce development. We recognize it pays off by addressing the needs of both employers and employees by providing training through a strong partnership,” Algiere said.
As Nancy Martin, a human resources representative with the submarine manufacturer, explained the area is designed to replicate aspects of the company’s shipyards in Quonset Point and Groton. As the tour proceeded, students worked at several star-shaped tables, inside a mock submarine hull, and in classrooms. The training, a partnership between the center, Electric Boat and Community College of Rhode Island, has ramped up more quickly than originally projected. Other CCRI programs and classes at the center are also growing, from 206 students in the spring to 252 students in the current fall semester.
“We anticipated training 100 people this year but will have trained 492 people by the end of the year,” Grzybowski said.
The center hopes to open the Electric Boat training to high school students in February and is also hoping to develop a jobs exploratory summer program for high students.
Ruggerio has sponsored initiatives to reform economic development in the state, including a requirement for long-term economic planning. He also pushed successfully for a non-trade apprenticeship incentive bill enacted last year to foster training in fields outside of the traditional trades, such as in IT, design, advanced manufacturing, and management.
Regarding the center, Ruggerio said, “The hands on aspect is very positive because people learn by doing.”
To date, the center has spent $11,000 on catering from local businesses and $18,000 for supplies purchased from local businesses, said Grzybowski, who worked for the town of Westerly as both town manager and director of Development Services for four years, before taking her current position.
“It is very much my mission, especially having come from working for the town, to make sure we are infusing as much as possible into the community by working with local schools and vendors and collaborating with social service agencies,” Grzybowski said.
Students from the Westerly High School culinary program have also been used for catering, Grzybowski said. “We want to make sure this is a project that isn’t just for higher education but instead, includes a career pathway for high school students,” Grzybowski said.
The center is also using a $394,124 Real Jobs RI grant announced in August to design and implement a jobs training program that will benefit 11 employers including Pfizer, Thielsch Engineering, Amgen, Roger Williams Medical Center, Toray Plastics (America), Rhodes Pharmaceuticals, Grey Sail Brewing, Kenyon Industries, Eurofins Lancaster Biopharma, Eurofins Spectrum Analytical, and Tedor Pharma. The curriculum will be created and taught by CCRI and the University of Rhode Island will serve as evaluator of the program. URI also conducts leadership training at the center.
The center is also home to a community health worker training program taught by Rhode Island College instructors through .
After less than one year in operation the center has proved its value, said Brenda Dann-Messier, the state’s commissioner of post-secondary education, who joined on the tour.
“We know it’s only going to grow and see we have met a need,” Dann-Messier said.
Dann-Messier and Algiere both said the center could serve as a model for similar facilities in the state. For instance, Algiere said, a center geared toward workforce development for two of the state’s largest companies — CVS and Fidelity Investments might make sense for Woonsocket.