Machinist training program in Lynn shuts after losing state funding

November 16, 2008
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Putting a face on budget cuts

The national economic crisis prompted the governor to cut the state budget by more than $1 billion. To show that behind many cost-cutting moves are people or organizations whose world is turned upside down, Globe North offers a glimpse of the human impact.

The day after students in the E-Team Machinist Training Program contributed $435 to keep the class running, Tony Dunn delivered the bad news.

"We have to close, for now," said Dunn, the program director. "But we're working to get back in business soon."

The nine-month program shut down Nov. 8. The state eliminated $105,000 for the nonprofit Essex County Community Organization to run the program. The 36 students enrolled represent the most diverse class in the program's 12-year history. Five women, and one man in a wheelchair, are studying the nuts-and-bolts of basic machining.

"This was going to be a new start for me," said Harold Clem, 48, sitting at a drill press in his wheelchair. "I thought it would be good, because all the machines are right at my level."

Now the career plans of Clem and other students are on hold. The class has been indefinitely suspended until new funding can be found. Organizers hope to tap into a $289,000 federal grant awarded for the program to develop college credit courses at North Shore Community College in Lynn. But that money might not be available for 60 to 90 days, Dunn said.

Unlike state funding, federal dollars do not have to be spent in a single fiscal year. They can be saved. Dunn hoped to use the money over the next two years. "We thought we'd have money in the bank for next year," he said.

Dunn is also trying to get private companies to kick in some cash. Workforce development grant money already awarded to employment boards in Salem and Lawrence could be tapped if matching private dollars can be found, he said.

The E-Team was founded to address a shortage of machinists in the region's labor force. The average age of a machinist today is about 55, and newly trained apprentices are needed to fill jobs in a number of industries. "Businesses need trained machinists," said Dunn. "We're doing everything we can to get started again."

The program, which runs through June, teaches math, blueprint reading, shop theory, and business communication. Classes meet three nights a week at North Shore Community College. On Saturdays, class meets from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the machine shop at Lynn Vocational Technical High School. More than 300 people have graduated from the program. Many were unemployed or underemployed, unable to earn more than minimum wage. Starting pay for a trained machinist is about $15 per hour. E-Team graduates have started at small machine shops and moved on to higher-paying jobs in companies such as General Electric in Lynn.

Melissa Lindner, a single mother, earns $9 per hour at a local supermarket. "I'm hoping to work in a small machine shop, then end up at GE or something," said Lindner, who is 27 and lives in Lynn. "I need the training."

"This is a really good class," said Clem, who used to work in auto repair. "The teachers really work with us. . . . We're eight weeks into it; to shut us down doesn't seem right. A lot of us were counting on getting good jobs."

The class limped through its first eight weeks by the good will of instructors. They were scheduled to earn $37 per hour, but since the state had not released the grant money when class started in September and then ended funding last month, teachers in effect volunteered their services.

"Everyone wants to be here," said teacher Tim Roach, nodding to students running lathes, drill presses, and other machines. "It's not glamorous. A lot goes into learning machinery. We teach the basics. But it's enough to get them started."

Added Mike Pickering, a first-year instructor: "They're highly motivated. They all want to be here."

The E-Team students have pitched in. Although most earn minimum wage in the retail or service sector, they collected money last week to donate to the program. Dunn used the $435 to pay a bill for custodial services at Lynn Tech.

"I hated to take the money from them," Dunn said. "Then I had to tell them, 'We have to stop, at least for now.' They weren't happy."

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