Displaced millworkers celebrate fresh start after completing EMCC course

Posted June 03, 2016, at 4 p.m.
Last modified June 03, 2016, at 8:37 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Ralph Jellison walked out of the Verso paper mill in Bucksport for the last time in April of 2015, bringing an untimely end to a 27-year career.

“The anxiety was incredible,” he said Friday.

Jellison, 53, is among the hundreds of Maine millworkers who have lost their jobs during the past three years, as five major paper mills shuttered and others cut back.

But for Jellison, that worry has been replaced by excitement for the next chapter of his working life. Jellison has been retrained through a program at Eastern Maine Community College and will start a new career at Hinckley Yachts in Trenton.

A little more than a year after he clocked out of the mill for the last time, Jellison celebrated completing the fine woodworking and cabinetmaking program at EMCC on Friday. The accelerated program was created through a partnership with Eastern Maine Development Corp. to help workers displaced by layoffs find a new career.

Jellison heard about the community college program while looking for employment at the Orland Career Center.

Hinckley, which has been struggling to find qualified woodworkers to build cabinets and other furniture that appears in its yachts, was integral in shaping the coursework.

Last year, in the first iteration of the program, 10 students earned certification.

“All of them ended up employed,” Lester Stackpole, chairman of the fine woodworking program, said.

It went so well that Hinckley and EMCC continued the program after the Old Town mill announced plans to shut down in September of last year. That session for displaced workers started the next month.

Nine students joined this round and earned their certification in woodworking, which they celebrated Friday by showing off their work and sitting down for a barbecue. EMCC also has a two-year woodworking program, but the accelerated version was created with the intent of putting displaced workers back to work quickly, EMCC spokesman Matthew McLaughlin said Friday.

Four of those nine students are former millworkers, and the rest were displaced from other industries, McLaughlin said. Of this crop of nine, Hinckley has hired five new woodworkers.

“I’m elated,” Jellison said Friday about his new career. “This has been a blessing. I loved this course. The days have flown by.”

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.