By Rhonda Miller
PBN Staff Writer
With an associate degree in automotive technology from New England Institute of Technology, 29-year-old Christopher Whalen didn’t think he would fall into Rhode Island’s skills gap – the abyss between employers who are hiring for open positions and residents who don’t have the skills to fill the jobs.
Whalen is now employed and earning $16.25 an hour, with benefits, as a shipfitter at Senesco Marine in North Kingstown. But it took him years to get from automotive school to what he now sees as his career in the shipbuilding industry.
Senesco is building tugboats and barges with 200 permanent employees, nearly all of them living in Rhode Island, said Human Resources Manager Bobbijo Marcotte. Senesco currently also has about 80 contract workers from out of the area, mostly from the South and even from China, where 10 welders contracted through an employment agency that handles the work visas hail from.
“They’re excellent [workers], very well-trained,” Marcotte said of the out-of-state workers. “If we could find Rhode Islanders who are trained welders, we’d hire them.”
Senesco recently hired two Rhode Islanders after they completed a federally funded, state-managed, on-the-job training program. Two more are in training and doing well, she said.
Senesco could hire a total of 10 more welders and pipefitters if good candidates were available, said Marcotte.
The shipbuilding industry is so in need of skilled employees, Marcotte literally doubled her efforts to get the on-the-job training funds. She sought candidates through both Workforce Solutions of Providence/Cranston and The Workforce Partnership of Greater Rhode Island, she said. The Federal Workforce Investment Act program is administered by the two local workforce-investment boards.