The Androscoggin Mill after the April 15, 2020, explosion. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The clock is ticking for the 177 Androscoggin Mill workers laid off last year, due to a pulp digester exploding, to enroll in community college programs by July 5 with tuition covered by Pixelle Specialty Solutions’ private fund.

“It is our hope and intention that everybody takes advantage of this,” Pixelle Media Spokesperson Roxie Lassetter said. “It was set up for a reason, for a purpose, and we have certainly partnered with Maine Community College and they have done a really good job of trying to help us market this to our folks. But the reason for the deadline to July 5 is to be perfectly honest, all they have to do is be enrolled and approved, it doesn’t have to be completed by July 5 … the class can start in the fall, it can start the first of next year.”

To be eligible for the tuition fund, workers had to have been active employees on the April 15 date of the explosion, according to Lassetter. The Pixelle fund covers short-term certificate and two-year associate degree programs at either Central Maine Community College or Kennebec Valley Community College.

To navigate the college system, a first-time process for many of the displaced mill workers, adult education centers are working collaboratively with Community Concepts Inc. to provide career counseling, college transition courses and workforce training opportunities.

Director of Spruce Mountain Adult Education Robyn Raymond holds a dish of prepared food from the center’s culinary program. Raymond works with displaced mill workers by directing them to college preparation courses, career counseling and resume help. Photo Courtesy of Robyn Raymond

“The folks that come to us, there’s just so many different things we can do with them whether it be one-on-one career counseling, resume cover letter writing, digital literacy skills, taking the ACCUPLACER for college,” Robyn Raymond, director of Spruce Mountain Adult Education, said. “The list just goes on and on and we can just set them up for next steps. So if they take our college transitions program, they can earn a free college credit with us and take that with them which is a nice perk, too.” 

Despite these resources, Raymond has seen at most, 40 of the 177 displaced workers. Pixelle is reporting similar numbers.

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“We’ve had 30 very serious inquiries where people are either signed up for courses, have been approved for courses or are on the verge of signing up to be approved for courses,” Lassetter said.  

Raymond attributed low-enrollment partly due to people experiencing a layoff during a pandemic.

“I think it’s different for every person, but I also think it’s different during a pandemic, really processing this out loud with a professional, even with each other, I don’t think many have had the opportunity to do so,” Raymond said. “And that’s part of the process … I think that’s a big piece that’s missing. So they’ll come into our office and we’re happy to have those conversations, I just feel like part of the package should include some type of counseling.”

The Pixelle tuition fund does not include counseling, but Lassetter said that laid-off workers still have access to the employee assistance program.

Nonetheless, Raymond shared that the initial meetings with displaced workers inevitably turn into counseling sessions with her staff of four full-time people. She said they’re happy to listen and understand that just by offering in-person services right now, they’re creating a comfortable space for people that are still in shock.

Raymond added that not everyone will identify college as their best option right now and may use adult education for career counseling, resume help and job connections.

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“I try to connect them with other businesses that may be hiring,” Raymond said, adding that Poland Spring has been eager to take on mill workers.

Other displaced workers may take advantage of federal funding for workforce training in a new field. CCI Workforce Development Specialist Karen Henderson coordinates workforce training opportunities with displaced workers who can utilize federal funds from the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. These training opportunities can be completed independently or in conjunction with a college program.

Community Concepts Workforce Development Specialist Karen Henderson at her office in Farmington where she assists dislocated workers with pursuing training opportunities in new fields. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

“So the student can work with WIOA funds to help with some of the supportive services while engaging in those trainings through CMCC or KVCC and help them navigate that process in some extent in partnership with the school,” Henderson said.

So far, there have been 20 people from Pixelle’s layoff last year who have reached out to Henderson. She said that there may be a different trend developing now that she is able to look back at previous rounds of layoffs from the Androscoggin Mill. 

She said that displaced workers often prioritize securing an income immediately after a layoff and take on jobs below their income-level needs. Henderson is currently working with clients such as these who were laid off years ago and are just now ready to pursue workforce training or a college program.

“I suspect that I will see more of those folks because just think about that moment of panic, the income, ‘I can’t not be working,’” Henderson said. 

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Another potential explanation as to why so few of these displaced workers have reached out for Adult Ed. or CCI services is digital illiteracy, a setback that is only heightened during the pandemic.

Pixelle introduced Henderson and Raymond to laid-off workers via Zoom through a webinar series which posed a barrier. People struggled to use the app and ended up dialing-in which meant they never saw the faces of people offering resources or any of the visual presentations.

Teaching digital literacy is a fundamental component of both CCI and adult education programs. Previous rounds of displaced workers have spent up to six months in the adult education college transition program learning how to use basic computer programs like PowerPoint and Microsoft Office Suite.

While going through workforce training, Henderson said that a lot of these skills are picked up along the way as they send out resumes, apply for jobs and coordinate with employers. Most recently, Henderson had a displaced worker proudly list off the additional skills they gained throughout their training process — how to use Zoom, how to use their phone to scan documents, how to send emails without putting the entire message in the subject line.

“To me, those are small successes from whatever else he is going to go do,” Henderson said. “It wasn’t just about the short-term training, it was about all of the newer things that we have hurried up to know in this space of COVID.” 

The Pixelle fund has allocated money to establish a year-long navigator position at each college campus to guide students through their programs.

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CMCC Pixelle Navigator Tanya Ducharme said that she’ll be available for guidance and for even more basic digital literacy skills such as using Zoom. Ducharme said that she’s received way less than 30 inquiries from displaced workers and is currently trying to figure out how to reach more people. KVCC has yet to fill the navigator position.

With most workers relying on word-of-mouth testimony though, they’ll probably end up in Henderson or Raymond’s office before they ever reach a college campus.

“I think that’s just culture,” Henderson said, explaining that most people come to her through recommendations from their friends.

CCI is a nonprofit and Spruce Mountain Adult Education has limited resources and a tight budget. With no funding from Pixelle, allocating money to reach the company’s laid-off workers is a stretch for CCI and adult education centers.

In order to secure college tuition funding through Pixelle’s fund, people must be enrolled with CMCC or KVCC, a different scenario compared to Verso’s layoffs. The 300 Androscoggin Mill workers displaced in 2015 were able to qualify for the federal Trade Act which provided a 12-month span to secure college funding by enrolling in an approved program. Adult education qualified as an approved program, providing displaced workers some much needed time to prepare for college.

Both Spruce Mountain Adult Education and CCI are offering their services in-person and virtually. Henderson iterated that she is all about providing a warm handoff and helping people find the most ideal direction for themselves.

“What I always assure them is, ‘no one needs to teach you how to be a worker. You’ve been doing that for 30 years. So what can we do to get you in a place where you can gain new skills?’” Henderson said. “The work world can be challenging to navigate if you’ve been in one position for 30 years so it’s really taking into account what is going to be a good fit and doing that warm handoff and connection.”

Robyn Raymond at Spruce Mountain Adult Education can be reached at [email protected] and (207) 897-6406. Franklin County Adult Education also offers college transitions courses and services to displaced workers and can be reached by calling (207) 778-3460. Karen Henderson at Community Concepts is available at (800) 866-5588, extension 2213, and [email protected]. Tanya Ducharme can be reached at [email protected].

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