NEWPORT — A county initiative to bolster workforce readiness through free adult education courses has demonstrated some early success in its first year of operation, according to local officials.
Last year, the Sullivan County government partnered with two Sugar River Valley Regional Technical Center (SRVRTC) campuses in Claremont and Newport to offer free adult education to selected applicants in such fields as basic machining, welding, plumbing, and licensed nursing assistance (LNA). Each school has received $20,000 in funds from Sullivan County’s grant program for community partners to launch a pilot program for adults to develop skills in workforce readiness over a multi-week period.
So far each campus has completed one course apiece: Claremont ran an eight-week CNC machinery course between January and March while Newport provided a welding program during September and October.
Additionally, the Claremont campus is currently running a plumbing course that expects to finish in December and in February the Newport campus will begin an LNA (licensed nursing assistant) program.
“From an economic development perspective it’s fantastic,” said Jennifer Opalinski, director of the SRVRTC in Newport. “It’s finding people who have an interest in a field, giving them an education and connecting them with employers in our local industries. It couldn’t be a better model to meet the needs of the community.”
While the program is still in its fledgling stage, so far the courses have met the initial hopes that the courses would draw and sustain their enrollment and result in at least one or two hires per program.
On Tuesday, Opalinski said that 10 of the 12 students who enrolled in the welding program completed the course and that two students were hired directly by Canam, a steel bridge construction company with a manufacturing facility in Claremont.
Alex Herzog, director of the SRVCTC in Claremont, said that nine of the 11 students enrolled in the machinery course completed the program and about three of the students are now employed in the industry. Additionally, the plumbing course has retained nine students from its original enrollment of 11 and two students are expected to begin work for a local employer when the course finishes next month.
Opalinski and Herzog both credited TPI Staffing, a local employment agency, for screening candidates for the schools, to ensure the candidates were ready and committed to complete the course prior to enrollment.
TPI has been immensely helpful in identifying candidates who are able to get through the full course, according to Herzog. Even if the person completes the course but realizes the field is no longer of interest, that person will leave with some valuable work-ready skills.
“The courses alone are not enough to learn everything,” Herzog said. “But if someone is willing to learn on the job, the courses will get one a foot in the door.”
Sullivan County Manager Derek Ferland said the program is off to a great start though there remains much to build.
“I’d certainly like to see it mature into a long-range, sustainable workforce provider to improve things for our local employers,” Ferland said. “That is what this program is really about.”
The concept for this education program generated from the Regional Economic Profile Project in 2017, an economic study and dialogue with Sullivan County stakeholders. That project found that workforce development was the number one topic for educators and business leaders, Ferland had told the Eagle Times last year.
Ferland said on Tuesday that the 20 year projections for the region’s workforce capacity look pretty alarming. Sullivan County, like many parts of Northern New England, has among the fastest-aging populations in the country, a declining student enrollment in its schools and a lack of younger people entering into desperately needed trades and industries.
Add to that the number of young adults lacking the essential soft skills and work readiness to meet the expectations of employers, according to Ferland.
“There is a significant gap between where the public schools leave and employment begins,” Ferland said.
By partnering with the local tech-ed schools, Ferland aims to expand the reach of the local tech-ed schools to adults who missed opportunities for exposure to those programs when in high school.
“The goal is to fill their skills gap enough for them to get a foot in the door,” Ferland said.
The county’s objective in the program’s first year was to demonstrate enough potential success to eventually interest local industries to invest in it, the county manager said.
In 2019, the Sullivan County Delegates agreed to fund each school with $10,000 from the county’s Community Partners grant program. However, the impact of the school systems by the novel coronavirus pandemic, which delayed the start of Newport’s welding program to this school year, gave each school another $10,000.
Ferland said the county may also seek grants to fund the program in the short-term future until private sources are allocated.
Opalinski said she has encountered a tremendous volume of community support from local industries, which has helped forge key educational partnerships.
Tim McNulty, human resources director at Valley Regional Hospital “has been instrumental” to Newport’s development of an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification program this year by providing a medical director to oversee clinical hours at the hospital for the student.
The Newport school will also be partnering with Valley Regional, as well as Woodlawn Care Center, an assisting living facility in Newport, who will provide clinical hours for students in Newport’s adult education LNA program.