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“I heard from one local manufacturer recently that they have 40 openings they can’t fill,” said Jeannie Hebert, explaining why the first focus of the new Blackstone Valley Education Hub (BV Ed Hub) will be advanced manufacturing.

Manufacturing is the second biggest industry in Central Massachusetts, based on number of employees, those employed, and overall wages, according to the Central Mass Workforce Investment Board.

“Manufacturers say they can’t get the skilled workers they need. We have to listen to what their needs are,” said Ms. Hebert, president of the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce, who spearheaded the years-long effort to establish an educational center in the Valley.

Dozens of invited Blackstone Valley legislators, state officials, town officials, school administrators, manufacturing partners, and representatives from Quinsigamond Community College, Worcester State University, Nichols College, and Franklin Institute of Technology will attend the BV Ed Hub’s formal ribbon-cutting on Tuesday, September 18, with Governor Charlie Baker leading the ceremonial honors.

Ms. Hebert is quick to point out that the BV Ed Hub is a collaboration of and partnership with all these entities, and that its goal is to prepare students for careers in manufacturing, fulfilling the great demand for workers trained in complex, evolving technologies and processes.

Vocational high schools have traditionally been the training ground for skilled workers; however, more than half of vocational students do not go on to a career, instead opting for college. Meanwhile, the local vocational school has a waitlist.  The BV Ed Hub will give all public high school students an opportunity to take specialized vocational classes.

The BV Ed Hub is centrally located in Whitinsville at the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce at 670 Linwood Avenue. The space there has three classrooms with a state-of-the art “Fab Lab.” The Fab Lab contains 3D printers, high-end Roland and FARO machines, and computers running the most recent versions of AutoCAD, MasterCAM, Solidworks, and Microsoft and Adobe applications.

Many of the local high schools will host satellite campuses, first among them Uxbridge High School and Northbridge High School.

The Uxbridge lab has been outfitted with 20 laptops, laser parts cutter, 3D printer and other fabrication equipment.  Northbridge High School is in the process of retrofitting its old “shop” area.

Discussions with other area high schools are underway.

“The concept is that each of the high schools will offer different specialized courses. Students can take academic classes at their own high school and graduate with their class, while still learning different skills,” said Ms. Hebert.

She enthuses about some of the plans at different schools: bio-med classes, drone fabrication and certification, a welding program.

She is also excited about teaching students some of the “soft skills” that companies require of their workers. “The schools concentrate on MCAS and the soft skills have gone by the wayside,” she said. “Many kids don’t know how to verbalize, read a clock or use a ruler. Imagine if they have to email an international client. You can’t say, ‘hey, dude.’”  Worcester State University will teach courses on soft skills and accounting. The Army, she says, will offer a course called Responsibility & Discipline.

The BV Ed Hub isn’t just for high school students, however. The Advanced Manufacturing program, in collaboration with the Ben Franklin Institute of Technology, Quinsigamond Community College and Worcester State University, will provide courses to help students attain Level 1 and Level 2 Advanced Manufacturing credentials.

The center will also work with local manufacturers for custom training programs to update their current workforce on the newest manufacturing trends and technologies. Another aspect will be apprentice-ship programs.

The first classes at the BV Ed Hub, taught by QCC, are scheduled for October.

How has all this been funded? Grants. The major one came from Governor Baker’s Skills Capital Grant Program, which provided $456,320 for renovation of the site and equipment for the mini-Fab Lab. Grants will continue to pay for many of the projects and programs, and the Hub will have a person on staff to apply for all available grants.

Ultimately, the Blackstone Valley Educational Hub consortium may become a template for similar programs across the state.

Jeannie Hebert will be the first person to say that it was the collaboration of local legislators, manufacturers, colleges and schools that made the Hub a reality. But, it wouldn’t have happened without the persistence of a very vocal Valley cheerleader.

The Hub operates under the auspices of the Central Massachusetts Center for Business and Enterprise, the non-profit and business development arm of the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce.    Members of the advisory committee are:

Mark Lyons, AET Labs

Stasia Peters, Curriculum Director BV Ed Hub

Connie Gallant, Administration, NB Ed Hub

Liora Stone, Precision Engineering

Floyd Spencer, Lenze AC Tech

Lucille Ward, Package Steel Industries

James Samsel, Wire Fab

Harry VanderMeer, VDM Consulting

Victor Somma, QCC

Jeremiah Riordan, WSU

Larson Rogers, BFIT

Vanessa Maltifano, Nichols College

Catherine Stickney, Northbridge PS

Tim McCormack, Principal NHS

Mike Rubin, Principal, Uxbridge HS

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