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Industrial accident opens doors for worker retraining

Usually, nothing good comes from an industrial accident, but one Maine company has changed that. In December, Pixelle Specialty Solutions announced that it would create a $1M fund to pay for worker retraining for about 175 displaced employees.

The explosion of a “paper digester” – a machine that makes paper pulp – changed everything for the workers at the Androscoggin Mill. Amazingly, the dramatic explosion did not injure anyone, and the plant resumed reduced operations about a week later.

Prior to the explosion, the plant employed more than 425 people. The mill was one of the largest employers in the area, having absorbed workers from competing mills that had closed. In July, however, the mill laid off nearly 60 workers, and reduced its workforce again by about 50 people in September. It announced a third round of layoffs, which affected 67 people, in October. In addition, the explosion caused a ripple effect for local loggers and truckers, who brought raw materials to the plant.

In December, the mill owner announced that it would not replace the digester it lost in the accident. To assist the displaced workers, it struck a deal with Kennebec Valley Community College (KVCC) to provide worker retraining. The laid-off workers can choose to earn an associate degree in one of more than 40 programs; a one-year certificate in one of more than 20 programs; or short-term training specifically in health care, information technology or technical trades.

Worker retraining package is a winning strategy for everyone

KVCC’s tuition rate is similar to WCC’s, however it has a different fee structure. The worker retraining fund is sufficient to pay for most of the displaced workers to complete an associate degree. Granted, most employers don’t provide full-tuition scholarships for laid-off workers, but it’s a good idea.

Michigan – especially Southeast Michigan – is no stranger to large-scale layoffs. Worker retraining as a benefit to laid-off employees is both practical and economical. It is unlikely that all employers could fully fund worker retraining programs, especially if they’re laying off staff. But it may be possible to secure grant funding from other sources – federal, state, and local – to help fund worker retraining opportunities.

A rapid, comprehensive, and fully funded response to mass layoffs is exactly what this area needs. Returning people to the workforce with in-demand skills helps the workers and the local economy. Second, it may reduce population losses by encouraging workers who have lost their jobs to “retrain and remain” instead of leaving the state. It also offers yet another opportunity to increase enrollment, which keeps the community college focused on its primary mission.

Photo Credit: Paul VanDerWerf , via Flickr