Friday, October 3, 2008

Training provides hope for former SAS workers

Maine’s economic realities can be tough on its people. Times have changed from when many were able to make a decent living in traditional industries like shoes and textiles. Those industries, if not completely disappeared, are on the road to extinction.

Pittsfield, Maine is a small community of just over 4,000, located 20 miles north of Waterville. Like many communities that built strong 19th century economies helped along by Maine’s abundant rivers and waterways, Pittsfield developed as an agricultural trade center, and later, textiles were introduced when the town’s first mill was erected in 1869. The Pioneer Mill was an economic anchor, producing textiles and jobs that helped Pittsfield prosper in the mid-19th century.

Like many Mainers, Pittsfield was often just a name on an exit sign on journeys I’d make northward to Bangor and points beyond. With no relatives, or any other pressing reason to jump off I-95, I knew very little about the community.

Back in 2004, while working as a freelance writer, I was commissioned to write an article for an online magazine for families. The article, about Maine’s summer festivals, gave me an opportunity to learn about the Central Maine Egg Festival, held every fourth Saturday in June.

While I didn’t get a chance to visit Pittsfield during the writing of the article, I made a point to drive through Pittsfield later in the year while doing research for my first book. I’m sure I may have been through the town once or twice before, but my early fall visit in 2004 helped me to appreciate the quaintness of the town, as well as recognizing that Maine Central Institute, the railroad station, and the town library were holdovers from a time when the community's econonomy was robust.

I first learned about San Antonio Shoes (SAS) several years ago when I was trying to find a pair of American made casual shoes for work. Buying American, particularly shoes, was becoming more and more difficult in early 2001. The salesperson at Thom McCann showed me a pair of SAS walkers that while not real stylish, were one of the most comfortable shoes I’d ever owned.

Back in 2003, I heard the news reports about the company surprising employees with Christmas bonuses of $1,000 for each year of service. Some employees got as much as $20,000 of holiday cheer.

The realities of capitalism sometimes are harsh, and never was this more apparent than for workers that were feted with holiday bonuses just five years prior, and then cast aside when SAS announced in April that it was closing its Pittsfield plant, transferring operations to Texas. Nearly 150 workers in Mid-Maine were affected.

[San Antonio Shoes in Pittsfield]

[Front of the SAS factory]

There are various protocols established to handle plant closures, involving Maine’s Department of Labor, the workforce system, legislators, and other community leaders. Because of the nature of the layoffs in Pittsfield, Trade Adjustment Assistance was available to workers affected. A National Emergency Grant provided funding to assist in helping workers transition.

The Central/Western Maine Workforce Investment Board has been offering the WorkReady program throughout its five counties, including Somerset County, which is the county that Pittsfield is located in. From discussions which originated with the Maine Department of Labor, local adult education officials, town leaders, a decision was made to offer Work Ready training to workers from SAS that were interested. In addition to some of the curriculum components that make up WorkReady’s 60 hours of soft skills training, an additional 20 hours of computer literacy was added, in an effort to give these workers the added technology skills required by almost all jobs prevalent in the 21st world of work.

On Monday, September 22, 10 former employees of SAS began the first ever WorkReady program comprised of workers affected by a layoff. Comprised entirely of females, most are looking to transition from manufacturing to some other industry.

On Thursday, we held our mock interview day where local employers visit our training program and conduct actual interviews with training participants, providing them with constructive feedback based upon each interview. Despite a day that began miserably, with torrential rains, and accommodating a fire drill at Warsaw Middle School, where the training is taking place, the ten employers were great sports and each trainee sat through four 30 minute practice interviews.

[WorkReady participants readying for their mock interviews]

Employers participating represented manufacturing, banking, customer service, hospitality, healthcare, and staffing firms. This diversity represented a positive dose of positive reality to a group of former shoe workers that just weeks before, were discouraged about the possibilities of finding new employment opportunities.

[Local employer interviewing a WorkReady participant]

Despite a great deal of doom and gloom perpetuated by national media, the reality in places like Pittsfield, Maine is that employers are looking to add employees, particularly those who can demonstrate the types of skills that these women will graduate the program with on October 23.
Programs like WorkReady, and in particular, this program facilitated jointly by MSAD 54 and MSAD 53 adult education, provide opportunities for workers with solid work histories the opportunity to quickly retrain and retool their skill sets. Even better, many are now seeing this as a terrific opportunity to possibly pursue a career that captures where their interests and passions reside.

While there has been much written of late about government that is negative, this program in Pittsfield is an example of taxpayer dollars being used wisely, conscientiously, and in a way that will offer real returns the investment.

Inquiries about the WorkReady program, and workforce development as it occurs in Central Maine can be made to the Central/Western Maine Workforce Investment Board at (207) 753-9026.

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