PITTSFIELD, Maine — Ten women sat on one side of a long table Thursday with their work portfolios and resumes proudly displayed in front of them. Their hair was recently styled, their makeup was in place and they were exuding self-confidence.
Together, the women represented more than 178 years of faithful service as employees of San Antonio Shoe. “I was there when they opened,” said Frances Huff, 59, of Burnham. “I was there for 24½ years.”
But earlier this year, SAS abruptly closed and moved its Pittsfield operation to its home base in Texas, and women who only had made shoes for most of their lives were suddenly faced with finding new jobs outside a factory setting.
“It was a bad time in my life,” Huff said. “I was just shocked.”
Today Huff is contemplating opening her own business, but even if that doesn’t happen, she now knows she has the skills and confidence necessary to go out and find a new job.
Huff and the nine other former shoemakers were celebrating Thursday as the latest graduates of the WorkReady Program — a 60-hour training course that gives participants key skills for success in the modern workplace and is supported by the Maine Department of Education.
Participants learned basic computer skills, how to dress and behave appropriately in a professional atmosphere, how to set up a resume and conduct themselves at a job interview. They also learned to assess their personal skills to take advantage of their strengths.
“I discovered we are so much more than just shoemakers,” Huff said. “We are honest, trustworthy, dependable employees with many skills.”
Lottie Lancaster, 55, was a supervisor at SAS for 24 years. Now she is headed back to school for refresher courses and to determine what degree she will seek.
Doris Dunphy, 52, worked on the cutting floor for “17 years and five months.” Dunphy said that after the WorkReady training, she knows “I have far more to offer than just a shoemaker.”
John Campbell, adult education director for SAD 53, which hosted the day program at Warsaw Middle School, said it was a great success.
“Do they all have jobs? No,” Campbell said. “Do they all have the skills and self-confidence to make those choices in the future? Yes. Absolutely.”
Jeff Fantine, the new state director for the Department of Education’s Adult Education Division, was on hand to congratulate the women.
“I can only imagine what you felt like when the factory closed,” he said. “This program is indicative of one of the most comprehensive adult education systems in the country. This is what adult education is all about — what comes next.”
James Baumer, WorkReady’s director of services, said the Pittsfield program was the 14th sponsored in Maine in two years.
“Whether it’s former shoe workers, unemployed carpenters or folks that live in a shelter, WorkReady has the potential to change lives,” Baumer said. “We have here 10 folks that are exactly what Maine employers are looking for.”
Course instructor Kathleen Lewia said the following comments made by the graduates indicate the program’s success:
- “My thought process used to be, ‘I can’t do that.’ Now, it’s, ‘Oh, yes, I can.’”
- “It far exceeded my expectations. It was life-altering.”
- “I knew for the first time I was not alone.”
“All of these ladies were forced to step outside of their comfort zone,” Lewia said. “They succeeded beautifully.”
Huff agreed. “We learned how to turn our weaknesses into strengths, learned to take chances and how to set goals. We dared to dream.”