Classes kick off at Westerly Higher Education and Job Skills Center

Classes kick off at Westerly Higher Education and Job Skills Center


WESTERLY — Keegan Ruiz, a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps infantry for the past nine years, was on a simple quest — to find a certain kind of new job.

“It’s time to settle down and find a career where I won’t get killed,” Ruiz said during a recent interview.

Ruiz, 29, of Voluntown, is one of nine students who started training Monday as members of the first class at the new Westerly Higher Education & Job Skills Center.

In about two months, the center will be a hub of activity, offering three shifts of training.

Ruiz, a husband and father of two boys, including a 6-week-old, and his classmates have already been hired by Electric Boat and are receiving hands-on maritime pipefitting training and classroom instruction at the center. Electric Boat and the Community College of Rhode Island are the anchor tenants at the facility, which is administered by the state Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner, part of the state Department of Education.

Classes will also be offered in maritime sheet metal and electrical work to both Electric Boat employees and, eventually, to prospective employees as well. The training is based on a collaborative curriculum devised by Electric Boat and CCRI using U.S. Department of Defense standards. The instructors are CCRI employees.

The submarine manufacturer expects to train 100 pipefitters at the facility by May, according to Nancy Martin, an Electric Boat human resources specialist. Previous Electric Boat training, which was conducted at the company’s facilities, focused on classroom presentations. The center is different.

“It’s designed to be a simulation of the Electric Boat production floor,” Martin said.

During the six-week classes, students will learn various aspects of their trades, including installing parts on a submarine hull mock up designed by the same Electric Boat employees who design actual submarines.

“It will be 100 percent better than what we have been doing,” Martin said.

Pipe-fitting students will hone their craft at several circular “star tables,” custom-made surfaces the company has used for years .

“It’s very similar to what they are actually going to be doing,” Martin said.

The initial class is being taught by Frank Lockwood, who retired from a 38-year career as a pipefitter, mostly at Electric Boat locations throughout the country, including in Groton and Quonset Point. Lockwood, 56, supported his wife and three children with the positions.

“It’s good to have my experience tapped into to pass my skills along,” said Lockwood, a Richmond resident.

CCRI and Electric Boat are looking for other retired maritime tradesmen to serve as instructors. Those who have worked in the fields but are not familiar with maritime standards are also being sought and will receive training on how to deliver the instruction, Martin said.

Hiring on the horizon

The first day of class coincided with Electric Boat’s announcement that it plans 2,000 new hires in 2017 and will grow its work force from 14,500 workers to 18,000 employees by 2030. To help meet some of that demand, the center’s officials expect classes to be offered all day (in three shifts) by March, according to Amy Grzybowski, the facility’s executive director.

The training is supported by Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Real Jobs training initiative for those who will work at Quonset Point and by the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board Inc. for workers hired for Electric Boat’s Groton facility. In some cases students will earn academic credits, which can be applied to earning a degree, for the training. Grant funding is being sought to establish a program for high school students interested in working at Electric Boat to be trained at the center, Gryzbowski said.

Patrick Stone, CCRI marketing director, said the relationship between the center and the college is a textbook example of what community colleges do.

“From the college’s perspective, it’s exciting to get in on the ground floor of this space with programming like this. By partnering with the education center, we are able to offer good, CCRI-backed education and training to employees who really need it. It’s that classic community college model where there is a work-force need that was presented to us and we were able to respond with the training, the faculty, and the curriculum to match what Electric Boat was looking for,” Stone said.

Schools lined up

Electric Boat is using about 14,500 square feet of the center. With a total of 15 classrooms and an additional 20,000 square feet, a host of other education initiatives are planned. CCRI courses previously offered in the evening at Westerly High School will move to the center later this month. CCRI will also soon offer two one-day food-service recertification classes geared toward local restaurants in March and April.

The University of Rhode Island will begin conducting master’s-level ocean engineering and mechanical engineering courses, both aimed at the needs of Electric Boat, later this month. URI and Electric Boat will also collaborate on a leadership training program to be hosted at the center from February to November. The Rhode Island School of Design will offer non-credit introduction to drawing and introduction to digital photography classes in April, and Rhode Island College is expected to offer an as-yet-unspecified class by May.

While construction of the Electric Boat space is largely complete. Crews are continuing to work on other parts of the center, including nine second-floor classrooms. Two of the classrooms will serve as computer labs and two will be outfitted for possible use as science labs.

The $5.1 million center is a public-private partnership that blossomed through the vision and generosity of Charles “Chuck” Royce, the principal owner of the Ocean House and the Weekapaug Inn. The Royce Family Fund committed about $1.7 million to the center and has ensured adequate cash flow was available as construction has moved along and other committed donations from the state and private donors become available.

A ceremonial ribbon-cutting is tentatively planned for March.

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