Last year as a part-time staff member at the Westerly YMCA we took our annual training out of the YMCA building and traveled across the train tracks to another building that I was curious about what went on in this new development. The Westerly Education Center hosted our rather large welcome center group in one of their computer labs where we spent a couple of hours getting trained on new software that would help us provide efficient customer service to the YMCA members. I had to admit I felt rather silly that this huge attractive warehouse modern looking structure had been back here behind the train station for an entire year, not too far from downtown Westerly and I had no clue before that night what even went on in this building and the importance of it to the community.
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The Westerly Education Center is a public-private collaboration that brings together higher education, business, industry and community partners to provide educational programs and training in their meeting space for all ages connecting the local workforce. They opened their doors to the public in January 2017 and in the first year educated close to 1,100 people, this past year 2,600 people were educated not including all those that used the conference rental spaces. So how did this huge educational space with two computer labs, 15 classrooms, two science labs, conference rooms, and a huge multifunctional warehouse space come to fruition?
Local philanthropist Chuck Royce, who has created many opportunities for growth and business development in Westerly approached the state with the idea of a community college in downtown Westerly and working in partnership with Governor Gina Raimondo, who wanted a workforce development plan for the community, the Westerly Education Center was formed. Royce contributed $2 million to the outside structure, the state contributed $2 million, Electric Boat made a donation of over $400,000 for the contents of the multifunctional space they use for their employees. Donors contributed the rest including the Westerly Lions Club, wich contributed $15,000 towards the lab rooms.
“The community is great, we certainly wouldn’t be here without them,” says Amy Grzybowski, executive director of the center. “The community recognizes what an opportunity this is for their students. Anyone can find a new career at any time.”
The Westerly Education Center, managed by the State of Rhode Island’s Office of Postsecondary Commissioner has provided a “build it and they will come” environment and is self-sustaining, with its operational costs covered from its rental and tuition income. Businesses and organizations can rent one of their meeting spaces for trainings, private events, networking, or professional development.
Rhode Island, even though small in geographic stature is one of the leading states big in manufacturing and industry. Engineering is one of the strengths RI draws upon with universities and colleges such as URI, Brown University, and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) creating an innovative next-generation workforce. The Westerly Education Center provides the schools with continuing education courses in industry and art and design.
The center has also enjoyed a fulfilling marriage of resources with General Dynamics Electric Boat who uses the huge warehouse multifunctional space for evening classes and on the weekends for their trade training programs in pipe fitting and electric sheet metal. The Westerly Education Center was awarded a $750,000 Office of Naval Research grant for the promotion of science and technology for the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps which has assisted in providing on-the-job training for EB employees and students.
Dave Vallee, who lives in Exeter, RI was in the first training group as a new employee with EB to use the warehouse space in January of 2017. “I had been in construction for 30 years and was starting a new career at EB as a pipe fitter,” says Dave. “The teachers were very knowledgeable and the training gave us simulated hands-on experience in order to learn the trade and I found it very helpful.”
According to an online educational article, 70 percent of jobs in Rhode Island require more training and education than a high school diploma alone, yet only 47 percent of Rhode Islanders have any type of college degree. To bridge that gap, Governor Gina M. Raimondo set a goal that by 2025 70 percent of Rhode Islanders will have a college degree or credential.
What the New Year and the future brings for the Westerly Education Center: Because of their success so far another education center will launch in Woonsocket in the near future. Which will offer employer driver training to help the large industry partners in that area such as Fidelity and CVS, “It’s important for your career, whatever that is to provide individuals with what they need,” says Grzybowski. The education center offers programs that help people be successful and with higher education.”