Program brings skills, jobs to displaced Jac Pac workers

Rafael Calderon, a job developer with the Jac Pac Worker Assistance Program in Manchester, recalls finding on-the-job training for displaced Jac Pac workers a few months ago with a Manchester company called The Way Home.

“They hired four of our guys to teach them to do lead abatement,” said Calderon. “Now they’re making $12 an hour and they’ve got a trade. They used to be killing themselves for $8 an hour on the line. You meet them now and you’re going to find the happiest campers you could ever meet.”

It’s the kind of story that the employment counselors and job developers like to tell at the assistance program, which was launched last March with a $2.3 million emergency grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. The state Workforce Opportunity Council applied for the grant after Tyson Foods announced last December that it was closing the Jac Pac plant in Manchester. When the plant finally closed in February, 468 workers were out of a job. Nearly three-quarters of them were recent immigrants with little knowledge of the English language. Many lacked the training and skills needed in today’s job market.

“The big concern of the community was that these people would end up on welfare,” said Mary McGhee, an employment counselor in the worker assistance program. “But people are really willing to work and some have been model workers.”

Some of the former Jac Pac workers had “pretty strong backgrounds” — as teachers and human rights activists, for instance — before migrating here from their native lands, including the Sudan, Bosnia and Cambodia, she said.

Yet many still faced some significant barriers when the Jac Pac Worker Assistance Program opened March 1 at 149 Hanover St. A total of 262 people applied for the services available under the emergency grant, including 84 applicants for the English for Speakers of Other Languages program. The multilingual staff at the center is able to communicate with the displaced workers in 11 different languages. Language was just “one of the barriers we had to work on,” said Ron Giroux of Southern New Hampshire Services, the agency administering the program.

Some of the displaced workers did not know how to apply for unemployment benefits and were unaware that a worker’s assistance program had been established for them.

“We hired six peer support persons for outreach, to let them know we had a center here advocating for the Jac Pac workforce for whatever their needs might be,” said Giroux.

For the laid-off workers, some of those needs were quite basic.

“Food assistance — you name the needs, they were there,” said Giroux. “Generally, we put people in contact with agencies in town that can help them.”

The grant for the program also authorizes the use of funds to help with emergency needs for things like rent payments “while the person is getting back on his or her feet and finding employment,” Giroux said.

Employment found

While English and math courses are taught by instructors from the New Hampshire Community Technical College in Manchester, Business and Computer Solutions, a private company, provides the computer training. The center also has contracted, through individual training accounts, with more than a dozen job-training vendors, including Seacoast Career Schools, LNA Health Careers and the Northeast Technical Institute. The training accounts also have been used to pay for courses at the New Hampshire Technical Institute, the College for Lifelong Learning and the Boston University Corporate Center in Tyngsboro, Mass.

Companies providing on-the-job training for displaced Jac Pac workers are reimbursed for 50 percent of the wages of the employee during the training period, which typically lasts three months, Giroux said.

Though the information is incomplete about all of the former Jac Pac workers, the data gathered thus far indicate that about 320 of them have found other employment in the area, Giroux said, while some have returned to their native countries. Of the 262 workers who have enrolled in the worker assistance program, 150 have been hired for jobs that, on average, pay slightly more than their Jac Pac wages.

But the center’s work doesn’t stop at getting the workers hired, he said.

“We don’t just place (people). We follow up on everybody for six months to make sure it’s working out, that (the program) is meeting the demands not only of the displaced Jac Pac workers, but also the demands of the employers in the area.”

That also requires canvassing employers in advance of job placement to find out what their needs are, said Calderon.

“I create relationships with companies in order to get open positions for our people,” he said. “I go out to companies and ask for a tour to see what they do, to see what their needs are.” He also stresses the need to help workers recognize their own potential.

“In some cases, we have to convince people they can do the job. Anybody can go down to McDonald’s and get a job. The idea is to get a job where they can improve themselves and have a future,” Calderon said. “Most of our people come in with the mentality that all they can do is a factory job. They lack the people skills, the English skills and so on. But through the program, they improve their skills. If you give people the opportunity, they will rise to the occasion.”

Practicing diversity

Employment counselor Nabil Magilli offers a similar upbeat assessment.

“To some of them it was an advantage to lose their jobs at Jac Pac,” said Magilli. “It opened their eyes to opportunities for training, for going to college, for improving language skills, improving their careers.”

Magilli, a career social worker who specializes in diversity training, takes pride in the number of people of varied ethnic and racial backgrounds who have found assistance at the center.

“Many people preach diversity,” he said. “Many celebrate diversity, which is nice. Here we practice it.”

So, apparently, do many of the employers in the Manchester area who have found needed workers through the Jac Pac Worker Assistance program.

For instance, said Emelia Belouin, program manager for the non-profit The Way Home, when the Sudanese employees “came to me, they didn’t have any of the skills needed to do lead abatement.” But the workers were put through two training programs, one a lead abatement certification program run by the state, and another that The Way Home conducted at the Manchester Community Resource Center.

“They’re still learning some skills on the job,” said Belouin, adding, however, that “I’ve seen them come in sick, as I do. You want somebody that’s dependable, reliable. They’re pleasant people to work with. I enjoy them.”

Many other companies in the area have found it worthwhile to give the former Jac Pac workers opportunities to develop and apply new skills, said Giroux.

“Employers are very receptive,” he said. “They’re looking for people with a good work ethic. That’s what we’ve been looking for. And that’s what we’ve been finding.”

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