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Companies clear pathways to attract new employees

Firms across southern Vermont are designing new training programs to attract new hires

To learn more about the Bennington Rescue Squad’s apprenticeship program, visit benningtonrescue.org/apprenticeship.

BRATTLEBORO—What started as a shortage of nurses at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital led to a new training program at the Community College of Vermont/Vermont Tech campus in the Brooks House.

At the launch of a series of regional summits planned to address the state’s workforce shortage on Oct. 3, representatives from BMH, CCV, and the Vermont Department of Labor (VDOL) shared their experience in creating a variety of training programs, including ones for medical assistants and environmental services, and preparation courses for students interested in nursing.

Key to the programs’ success is making sure students can see a clear pathway from training to paid job, and southern Vermont companies are responding on a number of different levels.

According to Bill Norwood, vice president of human resources at BMH, the training needs to work for the employees as much as it does for the company.

“You’ve got to make it an attractive package for employees,” he said.

Leigh Marthe, CCV’s coordinator of student advising, agreed. She said that outlining how a student could succeed in a new job should be part of the program’s marketing so students know “there’s a job at the end of this class if you want it.”

John Young, the director of the Vermont Training Program with the state Department of Economic Development, said that while the state has a number of funding programs to support training, he and his colleagues will never tell companies what they should do.

“You must lead,” he said.

Businesses in Windham County aren’t alone in trying to attract workers. Workforce training has caught the attention of several enterprises in Bennington County which, along with Windham County, is part of the Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone.

Vermont’s unemployment rate of 2.1 percent means that most people who want jobs have them, said Rob Bahny, workforce education and training coordinator at the Southwestern Vermont Career Development Center (SVCDC) in Bennington County.

The SVCDC, which celebrates its 50th birthday this year, is one of 16 career and technical centers in the state, offering classes and training to high school and adult learners. The school, which has partnered with multiple businesses to create training programs, served more than 200 adults in the 2018-19 school year.

The center has also trained existing workers through partnerships with local businesses, said Bahny.

For example, the SVCDC partnered with Mack Molding, which has six plants in the eastern United States, including one in Arlington, to train 32 employees in Microsoft Excel.

The opportunity is affordable, too, Bahny added, noting that the training cost Mack less than $5,000.

The Bennington County health care-industry has also responded to the nationwide shortage of nurses and EMS providers with training programs. The Bennington Rescue Squad is approximately 18 months into an EMS apprenticeship program.

New training for manufacturers

The state’s workforce shortage has sparked a new awareness for technical training and adult education issues, said Bahny.

One popular program is the CNC (computer numerical control) machine operator certificate training. Many of the area’s manufacturers want employees with these skills, which include configuring, and sometimes programming, the computers that control the manufacturing process. The 24-hour course takes place over the course of eight classes, two times a week.

“The trick is finding people who want to train,” Bahny said.

Most of the adults attending SVCDC classes are seeking a career change, rather than doing so because they need work, he noted.

Bahny has observed that many of the people who are unemployed have some type of barrier between them and full-time work. Schools and employers may need to find new ways to support these potential workers, he said.

A chicken-and-egg pattern has emerged during the labor shortage — one that Bahny thinks companies should consider: companies want workers to show up fully trained, but workers don’t want to pay for training before they’re hired.

Bahny suggests companies should revert to “the old days,” where they hire first, train second.

The advantage is companies have time to vet employees and discover if they’re a good fit.

“A lot of people can get themselves through a training program and be a terrible employee,” he said. “You can’t train for a good attitude.”

‘Fighting a two-front war of attrition’

Mack Molding and The Vermont Country Store are two examples of companies that have launched internship programs.

Mack Molding, with facilities in Vermont as well as Connecticut, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and South Carolina hosts an internship program. It started in its Northern Division, but based on its success has spread to the whole company.

According to its president, Jeff Somple, the company is growing and they are hiring.

In an email, Somple wrote that the growth sprouts from “an uptick in electromechanical assemblies such as robots, 3D printers, and Class III medical devices.”

“We filled 100 positions last year, and while a handful went to interns, most went to talented laborers, skilled workers and professionals from within our community or people we attracted to our community,” he continued.

The company hopes to fill another 40 positions.

According to Somple, manufacturing companies, especially in the Northeast, struggle to attract workers for skilled positions.

Mack created its internship program in part because, he said, it was “fighting a two-front war of attrition”: First, some workers have left the industry for fear of being replaced by offshoring or automation, he wrote. On another front, not everyone wants to move to, or stay in, Vermont.

“We are showing students just how rewarding a career in manufacturing and a life in Vermont can be,” Somple wrote. “We find when we get these talented young people in the door, their eyes are opened to a world of exciting technologies and opportunities they didn’t anticipate.”

The company’s internship program started informally, mostly for members of employees’ families seeking summer work. The company formalized the program in 2011, creating a summer “project-based experience,” according to Somple.

“Today, it not only meets our business needs, it allows the students to return to school with tangible experiences they can show prospective employers,” he wrote.

While the interns develop their projects, they also attend lunches with senior staff and employees to learn about various aspects of the company. Interns also tour the company’s buildings and practice presentation and interview skills. The summer culminates with the interns presenting their projects.

In 2017, Mack Molding added free gym and golf course memberships to the internship program and for recent college graduates hired by Mack.

“This not only encourages healthy lifestyles, but relationship building with other interns, Mack employees, and community members,” wrote Somple. “It really allows them to see how they could build a life in southern Vermont.”

Mack has hired 19 interns for full-time positions from its program over the years.

“Our program is spread primarily by word of mouth, and while we do see clusters from schools such as [the University of Vermont], [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute], [Rochester Institute of Technology], and Union [College], that is because of students sharing their experience with peers,” he wrote.

According to Somple, Mack’s machining manager, Dave Hoffman, serves as an advisor on the Southwestern Vermont Career Development Center’s roundtable group to help build a conduit from the school to the company.

A few interns have come to the program through this effort, but most, said Somple, hear about the opportunity through their peers.

The interns, he wrote, are the program’s best recruiters.

‘The unicorn program’

Bill Camarda, deputy executive director of the Bennington Rescue Squad, oversees the only EMS apprenticeship program registered with the state of Vermont, a year-long commitment recently described by one student as “the unicorn program.”

Bennington Rescue launched its program in December 2018 and is in the process of interviewing applicants for its third cohort.

The program has “opened up a new pipeline of employees,” he said.

Nationally, EMS organizations have struggled to find employees. According to Camarda, the work is demanding and training is expensive. EMT training costs between $800 to $1,200. The profession also comes with a high turnover rate — approximately 15 to 20 percent a year.

As the labor market in Vermont has tightened, the problem has gotten worse.

With such barriers, its hard to attract new employees, he said. Add to this that many people who join EMS do so after switching from another full-time career. This means the profession is also asking people with full-time jobs to sacrifice their time or their money, or both, in order to train.

Bennington Rescue Squad receives approximately 16 emergency calls a day, or 117 a week, said Camarda.

At one point, he said, the organization had seven full-time positions open. Operating with less than a full roster is hard on staff, he said. It leads to a lot of overtime, hurts the employees’ life/work balance, and can end up in burnout.

Camarda believes the apprenticeship program removes some of the barriers to obtaining EMT training, because students don’t need to choose between full-time employment and training. The time apprentices spend in the classroom is considered part of their work week.

Under the structure of the program, the apprentices are given full-time employment, which includes time to train and two work days with the rescue squad.

Camarda said it’s better to pick the right person and then give them the training, than to try to find the right person with the right training.

“We’re very lucky to have a board that saw the strategic quality of the investment,” he said.

The program is funded through money from the organization itself as well as a state grant that helps pay for up to 50 percent of the apprentices’ wages.

The program supports two cohorts a year and operates on the same timeline as an accelerated EMT course. The Rescue Squad anticipates hiring two to four apprentices from each cohort depending on workforce needs.

The grant through the Vermont Training Program “made a big difference,” Camarda said. The money is helping the program get off the ground and prove itself, he added.

The idea for the program sparked after members of the Rescue Squad attended a meeting at the Southwest Vermont Career Development Center. Staff from the Vermont Department of Labor (VDOL) outlined for the audience what it took to launch such a program.

“It was nowhere near as complicated as we thought it was,” said Camarda, noting key points of advice:

• Designate a supervisor to oversee and manage the program.

• Provide applicants with a clear outline of how the program works and its pay structure. For Bennington Rescue, the apprentices start at $12 per hour. Pay increases to $15 per hour as they obtain higher levels of training and experience. The program lasts approximately one year.

• Ensure the organization has a clear path from apprenticeship to hire — or to educating apprentices in what careers are available outside the program after the training ends.

Camarda warns that such a program takes investing both time and money, but it would be worth it. For example, he said, when the squad was understaffed, approximately 30 percent of what it spent on salaries was spent on overtime. Burnout was also high.

As the staffing levels have improved, less money is going toward overtime, and his staff members are happier.

One surprise outcome is that many of the apprentices have advanced faster than expected.

The VDOL requires the apprenticeship program to run for one year, said Camarda. Bennington Rescue advances its employees based on a combination of training hours and competency, meaning apprentices receive a combination of classroom and field experience.

Camarda had found that because of the program’s level of immersion, students have a high pass rate and sharp learning curve. Students who started last year passed their EMT course ahead of schedule.

“If that’s one of our biggest problems, we’re exceptionally happy with that,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #532 (Wednesday, October 16, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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