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We never needed any other skills

Two years ago, when 135 people were laid off because of a local plant closing, CareerWorks in Brockton managed to place 84 percent of them in new jobs.

The job training and placement center run by the University of Massachusetts' Donahue Institute hopes to duplicate that success with the 370 workers slated to lose their jobs at the end of the month when Shaw's Supermarket closes its East Bridgewater warehouse.

When Ferrera and Sons closed its Canton warehouse in 1999, leaving 250 people without jobs, CareerWorks received a federal grant of $720,230 to help 135 workers get new jobs. Of those displaced workers, 117 completed the center's training and service programs over 18 months and 98 of the workers gained jobs in a wide variety of fields.

"We got people training in everything from computer repair to cosmetology," said Michelle Audette, manager of career services at CareerWorks.

While Audette points to the past success of Ferrera and Sons employees' training and job placement program, she admits the employment market has changed since then.

"Some Ferrera workers even got jobs in Shaw's warehouse," she said.

In November 1999, when Ferrera and Sons was sold and the warehouse closed, only 2.9 percent of the state's work force was unemployed, according to the state's Division of Employment and Training.

In September of this year, the state's unemployment rate was at 3.9 percent and climbing.

Also, local unemployment rates have been climbing since last year. Brockton's unemployment rate jumped from 3.7 percent in September 2000 to 5.3 percent in September of this year. The unemployment rates in Abington and Carver jumped from 2.2 percent to 3.5 percent during the same time period. In East Bridgewater, the unemployment rate increased from 2.6 percent in September 2000 to 3.4 percent in September.

The Commonwealth Corp.'s Rapid Response team, a quasi-state agency funded with private and public money called in to deal with plant closings and large worker layoffs, is expected to respond to twice as many downsizing or closing companies this fiscal year than last year, said spokesperson Caroline Kirtin.

During the last fiscal year, from July 2000 to June 2001, Rapid Response officials worked with 307 companies and explained unemployment benefits and career training options to more than 29,000 people. Since July of this year, the agency has responded to 115 companies and 15,000 laid-off workers, she said.

"It's been a lot busier in the first quarter of this year," she said.

Rapid Response has been called in for Shaw's workers in recent months.

"We held orientation meetings with all three shifts to explain unemployment programs and complete the paperwork for the workers to go to career training centers," said John Murray, Commonwealth Corp.'s southeastern coordinator. The state agency directed the Shaw's workers to CareerWorks.

"They can go there as often as five times a week for help with resumes and interview workshops," said Murray. More than 30 Shaw's workers have come to CareerWorks, said CareerWorks Director Brian Donnelly.

"They've had an assessment already, and we're lining up career specialists to help them with career direction."

Donnelly said his agency has been working with U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy's office to obtain federal funding to implement a comprehensive training program for as many as 200 of the displaced warehouse workers. CareerWorks has applied for a $1.1 million grant, he said.

"The training programs will run the gamut from computer-based training, office work, truck driving and nursing assistant programs, and a whole range of others," he said. Dean Clapp of Bridgewater, a Shaw's warehouse worker for 21 years, plans on taking advantage of the worker retraining program.

"We're waiting on the grant," he said last week after a trip to CareerWorks. "I'll probably try to get into a trade of some sort."

Bill McGaffigan of Halifax hopes to latch on with a union plumber and get training that way, he said.

"I've been throwing cases of mayonnaise around for 22 years," he said.

About half of the 370 Shaw's warehouse workers have already left the company voluntarily, taking other jobs, and most of those remaining will be laid off Wednesday, except for about 60 workers who will remain on the job "to shut out the lights" of the 30-year-old warehouse, say company and union officials.

The number of warehouse workers who got jobs in stores to stay with the company is not available, but Shaw's spokesman Bernie Rogan said, "A good chunk of them" would be absorbed in stores or other warehouses, such as Wells, Main, or Methuen.

Tom Dearth has already transferred to Maine, but he was forced to leave behind his wife, Debra, and 10-month-old daughter, Abigail, for a few months until they can move up there.

Abigail is teething, getting ready to take her first steps and is close to saying her first word.

Tom Dearth is missing all these developments in the growth of his first child.

"He's absolutely devastated," said Debra Dearth of her husband. Debra stayed behind to try to sell her West Bridgewater pet-grooming business, Classie Lassie on East Center Street.

For almost a month, the family has only been together on weekends.

Another worker, Lenny Mandeville of Brockton, used the Shaw's warehouse closing to change fields.

Mandeville, a 30-year veteran of the East Bridgewater warehouse, is now a student at Massasoit Community College an is enrolled in an intensive 14-week environmental program to learn about cleaning up brownfields.

"I've been out of school for a long time, and I find it really exciting and challenging," said the 55-year-old Mandeville.

Mandeville heard about the course, which is sponsored by Brockton Private Industry Council, on WBET, took an assessment test and then got into the class.

When the class concludes, Mandeville will receive a certificate of completion and be OSHA-certified in workplace safety protocols. He will also be able to attend job fairs in an effort to hook up with an environmental cleanup company.

"I feel sorry for some of the guys back at Shaw's," he said. "A lot of them had those jobs they were teen-agers and have no other skills because we never needed any other skills."

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