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Grant helps Shaw's workers train for new jobs after layoffs

Having watched family members face financial hardship, Don Watson learned early not to despair when money is tight. But after unexpectedly losing his job of 25 years, he was forced to confront the realities of being a middle-aged, former warehouse worker in a sliding economy.

One of 408 employees laid off when Shaw's Supermarkets closed its East Bridgewater distribution center last year, Watson, of Brockton, lost a $20-an-hour position with union benefits. Warehouse work was all he knew, and finding another job that paid as well seemed daunting, and at times, impossible.

Help came in the form of the Shaw's Supermarket Career Transition Center, at Careerworks at the University of Massachusetts Center for Professional Education in Brockton. Following the July 2001 announcement that the East Bridgewater distribution center would close, officials at Careerworks, a division of the UMass Donahue Institute, applied for National Emergency Grant funding from the US Department of Labor to assist the displaced workers.

Counselors began job-training services as soon as the distribution center closed last October and $1.5 million in emergency grant funding was approved in January. Since then, more than half, or about 250, of the laid-off Shaw's employees have participated in job services program at the career transition center. About 194 of the workers, who are primarily male and middle-aged, enrolled in the emergency grant program, and 116 entered training programs in new fields, such as refrigeration and air conditioning, heating, plumbing, computer technology or commercial driving license programs, according to Michele Audette, who manages the center. Many, such as Watson, have recently completed training and are looking for new jobs.

Other workers found jobs after being laid off by Shaw's, but have since been laid off again, Audette said. And counselors at the center, who assist workers with resumes, job research and interviewing and networking techniques, continue to seek out former Shaw's employees who have not contracted the program.

Despite the economic slump, the center is on target for its rate of rehire, with 107 of the 194 workers who have entered the training programs now employed in new jobs, according to Audette.

"Our goal is to get everyone 91 percent of their old wage and we're at 85 percent of that 91 percent, she said. These guys were making an average salary of $18 to $20 an hour and had been there on average for 15 to 20 years. The chance of finding another union shop where they can have that is unlikely."

Jim Schmidt, the former union president at the Shaw's warehouse, works as a peer counselor at the Brockton transition center. He says the layoffs were a blessing in disguise for some.

"When one door closes, another one opens, said Schmidt, who lives in Whitman and worked at the East Bridgewater distribution center for 29 years. We try to help them find something that they've always wanted to do and give them the new skills they need to do it."

Watson, who said he enjoys working with appliances, decided to attend the Bay State School of Technology in Canton to study refrigeration and air-conditioning repair. He finished the nine-month training program in November and has interviewed for five technician positions. He said he hoped to have an offer by this week.

"You really just have to put everything behind you and move on, he said. The employees here are very accommodating and I definitely feel like the opportunities are out there, if you're willing to pursue them."

The transition center, which is federally funded through next December, is one of several career service programs at the UMass Center for Professional Education, which relocated earlier this year adjacent to Brockton City Hall. More than 4,000 people from the Greater Brockton area received job service training at the center last year, according to director Brian Donnelly.

A "one-stop career center," the UMass center aims at boosting employment and economic development in the city, Donnelly said.

"Us occupying this building precludes the kind of vacancies you see elsewhere downtown, he said. "Just being here is important."

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