Knowing the score; Co-workers acquire GED, training after layoffs.
When Richard F. Bernard, 45, was hired at Mohawk Wire and Cable in Leominster 10 years ago, he thought he would work at the company until he retired.
Mr. Bernard, of Templeton, grew up in the area and was laid off at the former S. Bent Bros. Furniture company in Gardner in 1998. He did not have a GED certificate or high school diploma and went to the unemployment office for help. One year later, S. Bent was bought out by the company - where his family had worked for 100 years. He was called back to work, but he said he felt his employment there was tenuous.
He said he decided to leave S. Bent in September 1999 and was hired the same month at Mohawk.
Then, last year, Mohawk was sold, and Mr. Bernard and about 150 of his co-workers were told the company was moving to Mexico and that they would be laid off.
Once again, he found himself at the unemployment office, but this time he made the decision to get his GED certificate and training in a more lucrative field.
"The same thing happened with Mohawk as it did at S. Bent," he said. "Many people at Mohawk were upset when it happened, but I had seen it happen before in this state. Massachusetts is not doing anything to keep companies here and keep jobs here for people. I really can't find anything for work."
When his case manager at the North Central Career Center in Leominster referred him to Mount Wachusett Community College's Devens campus for full-time GED classes, he knew four of his colleagues from Mohawk would be sitting in the class with him.
"It was more comfortable for me because I knew people in the classroom," Mr. Bernard said. "My wife had been talking to me about doing it for years, but I was reluctant after 31 years not being in school. After I heard they were in the class, it made me feel at ease."
The five former Mohawk employees attended GED classes together 20 hours a week for months. All five men passed their GED tests in November. In January, they begin a year of job training through the North Central Career Center in Leominster.
Friday, they met at the Devens campus for a reunion with MWCC staff who helped them through the process.
"It was good to meet up with them all again," said Mr. Bernard. "I hadn't seen them since our last day of class on Nov. 12. I'll keep in touch with all of them once I'm in training to see how things are going. We all supported each other in the course."
Mr. Bernard also had the support of his family.
"My son was quite proud of me doing this," he said. "He's 12 and I was doing stuff he said he's doing now in school. He would help me. I was quite proud of that. He was ecstatic when I came home with my GED results. He came over and gave me a great big hug and a high-five. He's an `A' student and tries so hard - it gave me a good feeling."
Joanne F. Goldstein, secretary at the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, said many employers are requiring at the minimum a GED certificate or high school diploma.
"We are very supportive of individuals who are laid off getting their GED and further training," she said. "We are finding more and more minimum qualifications for most jobs in the state require a GED or diploma. We're thrilled these five men were able to access training and the GED system. It's particularly gratifying to see a commitment to doing this across state government."
She said the state is working with agencies and organizations, including colleges and vocational technical schools, to identify where jobs need to be filled to provide additional training to people out of work.
"We're trying to identify sectors where we think there are jobs and where it makes sense to get training," she said.
Former Mohawk employee Arthur Tucker, 51, of Leominster, said he didn't know what he was going to do when he heard the company was moving to Mexico. He grew up in Winchendon and quit school at 15 to help support his family, he said.
He also believed he would retire at Mohawk.
"You can't get them kind of jobs at all anymore," said Mr. Tucker. "They've all been outsourced."
If the state had not paid for him to obtain his GED and attend training, he said, he is not sure what he would have done. Having four of his colleagues attend GED classes with him made it easier, he said.
"When you haven't been in school for 35 years and have to start school with a bunch of strangers, it's tough," he said. "Fortunately for us, we got to go together and it made it that much easier."
Robert Enwright Jr., 53, of Greenville, N.H., worked at Mohawk for 31 years - 24 of them as a supervisor. He quit school in Grade 10 and went right to work in plastic shops, he said. Then, he said, he found a home in 1979 at Mohawk.
"I didn't know I would end up staying there, but after years went by, I thought it was a place where I was going to retire," he said. "I really liked the people I worked with and worked for. I wish the company hadn't been sold. I felt it was my home and I had worked my way up and got a good position. We didn't really expect our place to close after being around 50-plus years. It was disappointing to see our jobs go to Mexico."
The prospect of going back to school was daunting, he said.
He said he hopes to become an appliance technician after training.
"I've worked in a warehouse all my life," he said. "I love the work. I realize now, when I retired, I actually would have had nothing to fall back onto. With this training I feel I will have something for the rest of my life."
Dale M. Sanborn, director of MWCC's Adult Basic Education program the last 13 years, said the camaraderie between the five men was evident.
She said since the economic downturn, she has seen an increase in GED testing and participation in GED preparation classes.
About a year and a half ago, MWCC began offering full-time GED classes, she said. The state will only pay for full-time classes, she explained, and GED classes previously offered at MWCC were part time. Additionally, people on unemployment can retain their benefits if they are attending full-time classes.
She said having five men from the same company in the classes was not something the college had encountered before.
"They knew each other, and being here 20 hours a week, they formed a bond," said Ms. Sanborn. "Being in the same boat, they were very supportive of each other the entire time they were with us. I do believe it made it a little easier for them."
Pang Duangmanee of Gardner and Donald Caron of Fitchburg, both former Mohawk employees, also completed the GED program.
CUTLINE: GED program graduates, from left, Richard F. Bernard, Pang Duangmanee, Arthur Tucker and Donald Caron have lunch together at Mount Wachusett Community College Devens campus Friday.
PHOTOG: ED COLLIER