Northam gets firsthand look at Wilson Workforce programs

Students in Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center’s building trades program present Gov. Ralph Northam with a cutting board and explain how they made it during the governor’s visit on Monday, May 20. 

FISHERSVILLE — Gov. Ralph Northam made a return visit to the Valley Monday afternoon to tour Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center and learn more about its training programs.

The center used the visit to honor two corporate partners, CVS Health and The Hershey Co., for their efforts in establishing curriculum that aids Wilson’s mission to give people with disabilities the skills they need to enter the workforce.

The Fishersville center, in conjunction with the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, trains about 3,000 students each year. While most students are between 18 and 23, some may be as old as 65, said Sharon Mullen, Wilson’s workforce credential specialist and education principal.

The key to developing successful programs is to work with employers when creating the curriculum, according to center and workforce development officials. Hershey’s pre-apprenticeship manufacturing training program at the center began about two years ago.

Mullen said that following a six-week assessment the program usually takes three to six months to complete, although it may take longer depending on a student’s needs.

“All along the way we want make sure they are getting skills, that’s what our goal is,” Mullen told the governor. “We try to make sure we are producing the employee the employer is looking for at the end of the training.”

According to Mullen, the data appears to support the center’s instruction. Through 2016, she said, 28 students who had gone through the training at WWRC were employed in the field of manufacturing for a 70 percent employment rate.

Hershey also made a recent $25,000 donation to the center’s foundation to help purchase equipment, such as a resin-based 3D printer for students to use in the manufacturing technology training and building trades programs.

“It’s partnerships. That’s the key to everything,” Mullen said.

So far, three pre-apprenticeship program graduates are working full time at Hershey’s Stuarts Draft plant.

Steve Sweeney, who has been instructor at the center for more than three decades, said the collaborative efforts with the local business community, including Harrisonburg-based ComSonics, is making a world of difference for his students. ComSonics specializes in the design, manufacture, sales and repair of electronics and fiber optics.

“I’ve been teaching here for 36 years, and I am as excited as I’ve ever been,” Sweeney said.

CVS was honored for the “mock pharmacy” training program it established at WWRC about three years ago.

The space allows students to learn the ins and outs of a retail operation, such as how to properly stock shelves and handle merchandise. In addition, students learn about the company’s core values and the expectations of customer service, according to Robert Alley, CVS district leader for the Waynesboro, Staunton and Charlottesville areas.

Northam, who was joined during the tour by Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni, stopped to chat along the way with students in several of the center’s 13 career pathway programs.

Speaking at the end of the tour, the governor commended the staff for helping people with disabilities from across the state learn skills that translate into jobs.

“We want everybody to have opportunities for employment in Virginia, no matter who you are or where you’re from,” Northam said.

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