Still making it
Manufacturing firms remain hard at work in the Blackstone Valley — but need qualified help
WOONSOCKET – On the shop floor at the Brickle Group, a small group of women sit at a table stacked with forest-green military berets, poking, prodding and dusting off the headgear to make sure one of the textile company’s signature products leaves the manufacturing facility in tiptop shape.
“How many of you live in Woonsocket?” Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt wants to know.
But there are no city residents on Brickle’s quality control team for the beret shop – surprising, particularly since the city’s unemployment rate is 6.8 percent – the state’s highest – and manufacturing has long been viewed as a job haven for high school grads who aren’t planning to go to college or adults with few specialized skills. Moreover, Max Brickle, president of the company, says nothing would please him more than hiring more residents from the city. It’s just not that easy. Too many prospective employees show up without the requisite skills for the workplace – even an environment like a textile plant, which isn’t as low- skill anymore as many seem to believe, says Brickle. One of the biggest shortcomings among work prospects is an appreciation for fundamental workplace etiquette – habits as old-school as showing up regularly and on time. Adeficit in basic academic skills, especially math, is also an issue as automation plays an ever-increasing role in manufacturing.
“You can’t just walk in off the street anymore and know what you’re doing,” says Brickle. “What’s needed
is a capable, stable workforce. People that care, who show up every day and want to learn.”
Brickle led a small troupe of city and state officials through the plant Thursday to plead his case for better workforce training programs that might open the doors of the Brickle Group to more city residents. Among them were Gov. Gina Raimondo, Baldelli-Hunt and members of the city’s legislative delegation, including Rep. Robert Phillips (D-Dist. 51, Woonsocket), Rep. Stephen Casey (D-Dist. 50, Woonsocket), Rep. Michael Morin (D-Dist. 49, Woonsocket) and State Sen. Marc Cote (D-Dist. 24, Woonsocket-North Smithfield).
Headquartered in a cavernous, turn-of-the-century mill at 235 Singleton St., the Brickle Group operates several divisions responsible for churning out a dizzying array of products for a variety of applications and niche markets. It spins yarn that’s wound into baseballs for the major leagues. It makes woolen blankets and berets for the Navy and other branches of the military. Its non-woven division makes an assortment of pressed padding-like fabrics used for acoustic batting, carpet backing and shipping insulation for prepped food meals from companies like Blue Apron.
Founded in 1936 by Hyman Brickle – Max’s grandfather – the Brickle Group is actually three related enterprises – Northwest Woolen Mills, Boukaert Industrial Textiles and Brickle Fiber Trading and Recycling. The company also runs a real estate devel- opment arm known as Sam Man Realty which is currently building a solar panel farm in North Smithfield.
Boukaert Industrial Textiles – the non-woven division – just made a multimillion dollar bet on the city, expanding operations at what’s been dubbed Plant No. 2, a corrugated steel warehouse located at 1 Privilege St. Tom Boukaert, Brickle’s partner, recently traveled to Italy and France to purchase some $3 million worth of new equipment that would allow the division to markedly increase its output.
The equipment will be fully installed and ready to go online in about a month – far sooner than Brickle will have identified markets to make sure the company sells enough product to turn a profit on the investment. But he seems less worried about identifying buyers than he is about finding workers who are skilled enough to run the plant.
“The real issue is going to be finding people to work in the plant,” he tells the governor. “If they’ve never been in a manufacturing plant before, they won’t do it.”
Raimondo listened intently and nodded frequently as Brickle walked the governor and other officials, outfitted with ear plugs and safety glasses, through the production and office areas. The 45-minute tour started with a video primer on the company’s corporate ethos and operations.
Raimondo and the mayor also got a souvenir – a baseball made for the 2016 Major League World Series for each of them.
“Manufacturing is alive and well in Rhode Island and we have to do even more to support it,” Raimondo said after the tour. “You walk through a place like this, almost 100 people have jobs here. There are jobs at almost every level, people on the floor, up to human resources managers, shipping, marketing, which is why I’m such a big, big fan of manufacturing.”
“I’m here to say, ‘What more can we do, how can we help you grow so we have even more jobs?’” Raimondo said.
The governor and Baldelli-Hunt both have a few ideas for getting more city residents to apply for jobs with the Brickle Group.
Raimondo points to the Rhode Island Manufacturing Boot Camp, a workplace preparation seminar designed to address the very barriers to hiring that Brickle decribes. Created on Raimondo’s watch, the program is a joint venture of the non-profit Polaris MEP, an affiliate of the National Institute for Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership and the business unit of the University of Rhode Island Research Foundation.
Brickle likes the program, but he thinks it’s too mid-state centralized to be of much assistance in Woonsocket and some of the other outlying areas, particularly for the underemployed and unemployed, many of whom have problems accessing transportation. A network of satellite training sites – he calls them “pods” – might be an improvement.
Baldelli-Hunt says the administration is in the process of arranging a job fair that will focus on attracting prospects for the Brickle Group, among others.
The mayor said the administration is working with the Woonsocket Education Department to identify every senior in the system whose plans after graduation include neither a stint in the military nor college.
“We want to incorporate those graduates into that job fair,” said Baldelli-Hunt. “If you’re not going to school, you need to get a job or get to the boot camp. That’s the goal, to get everybody to work.”
Woonsocket has long struggled with high unemployment, often lagging behind the rest of the state even in good times – like now. With the economy generally chugging along, the state unemployment rate was 4.5 percent at the end of February, lower than any time since 2006, according to the state Department of Labor and Training.
The city unemployment rate is 6.8 percent, with about 1,287 people available for work in the labor market. Some statistics suggest many more have simply given up looking for work.
When unemployment in the city peaked at 15.2 percent in 2012 during the recession, the labor force represented about 19,353 workers. Now DLT says there are only 18,939 individuals in the local workforce.