WESTERLY — A request made on behalf of a now-former employer has blossomed into a new career for Glenn Wilcox, an instructor in the process technology program at Westerly Education Center. He also serves as workforce development project coordinator at the facility.
While employed by Pfizer as director of its separation sciences plant, Wilcox saw the company’s struggle to find qualified process technologists, workers who oversee aspects of pharmaceutical development and other processes in other industries.
“We noticed that a lot of the technicians that were coming in didn’t have the skill set or experience that we were looking for,” Wilcox said during an interview Wednesday.
Under Pfizer’s “Dare to Try” initiative that encourages employees to find solutions to problems hindering the company’s work, Wilcox set out to develop a training program to provide a stream of reliable process technicians. Aware that Pfizer’s needs in Groton were not great enough to support a standalone program, Wilcox spoke to representatives of Amgen, the biopharmaceutical company with facilities in West Greenwich, and learned the company faced the same challenges as Pfizer.
Wilcox then spoke with Amy Grzybowski, executive director of the Westerly Education Center. At the time Grzybowski was preparing for the center’s early 2017 opening and the two agreed to speak again. The second round of talks led to the center’s successful application for a Rhode Island Real Jobs planning grant to determine the potential need for a process technology program at the center. The Real Jobs initiative was developed by Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration to develop the workforce and help spur the state’s economy.
“Even in that short window we were able to see that what Glenn was was telling us for needed competencies was more than just pharmaceuticals,” Grzybowski said.
With the need established, the education center then applied for and received a grant to launch a process technology program at the center. As the program was being developed Wilcox,59, accepted a retirement and buy out package, after a 39-year career, from Pfizer and is now working as an instructor and project coordinator at the center. While he goes to work at the center his employers are Community College of Rhode Island and Skills for Rhode Island’s Future, a Providence-based non-profit public-private partnership that works with businesses in the state and directs quality unemployed and under-employed workers to them.
The first cohort or class of students completed the 10-week process technology course last month. As of Wednesday, two of the 15 students who completed the program have found jobs related to the training. Wilcox and Grzybowski said they both expect more of the students to also find jobs in the process technology field which is used by industries as diverse as pharmaceuticals, food preparation, aviation, development of building materials, metals and plastics.
When Raimondo convened a meeting of representatives of companies that utilize process technology, Grzybowski said many said they needed 10 or more qualified employees. Based on those needs and other research, Grzybowski said the center currently anticipates offering the program three times per year. The next cohort starts on Jan. 22. “We want to make sure that the people we are training are going to get jobs...because it falls across several different industries the options are out there,” Grzybowski said.
Amgen, Roger Williams Medical Center, Toray Plastics, Rhodes Pharmaceutical, Grey Sail Brewing, Kenyon Industries, Eurofins Lancaster Biopharma, Eurofins Spectrum Analytical, Tedor Pharma and Bradford Soapworks, all Rhode Island companies, partnered with the education center to support and help develop the program. Going forward Wilcox said he hopes to find additional companies. The partners agreed to consider hiring students who complete the program and offer support through donations of money or equipment.
“It’s about getting people jobs but it’s also about helping the businesses find people that have skill sets that they need,” Wilcox said.
The center’s labs are outfitted with equipment to give students hands on lessons in chemistry, electricity, and other applications. They’re also exposed to computer simulations.
Through research he performed as he was developing the program, Wilcox said he concluded that the center’s program is the only one of its kind in New England. One of the central challenges, he said, is a marketing one.
“There are a lot of companies in the state that don’t know about this...many of those companies that hire process technicians don’t know about this program,” he said. “The hard part is getting the word out.”